Brooklyn Heights

Church with strong German heritage welcomes Pastor Klaus Dieter Gress

May 2, 2018 By Francesca Norsen Tate, Religion Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Pastor Clint Padgitt (at right, wearing white alb and tippet) welcomes the Rev. Klaus Dieter Gress, the new pastor of Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church. Eagle photo by Francesca N. Tate

Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church derives joy from mission and outreach work

Herzlich Willkommen!

This German expression, meaning a “Hearty Welcome,” is at the core of a 163-year tradition of hospitality and outreach of a Brooklyn Heights church that sits on Henry Street near Clark Street. Last Sunday, Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church gave its official welcome to its new called pastor, the Rev. Klaus Dieter Gress.

Gress began the afternoon by greeting worshipers at the door, bidding them that “hearty welcome.”

Gress succeeds Pastor Josef Henning, who now serves a Missouri Synod congregation in Indiana. But Gress is also no stranger to Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church and was friends with the Rev. Dr. George R. Muenich, who served here for more than 18 years (December 1990-June 2009 when he retired). Muenich died suddenly in May 2011.

During his tenure, Muenich, who was a co-founder of and active in the Brooklyn Heights Clergy Association, enrolled Zion Church into the growing international synod called Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. The group formed over a desire to focus on mission rather than continue the political battles that were dividing Christians.

Indeed, mission is central to the Lutheran Church’s — and this particular congregation’s history — since the latter’s founding in 1855.

A full-page article published in the Brooklyn Eagle on Feb. 13, 1910 featured the German-American community in Brooklyn, with illustrations of some of the pastors and buildings, including those of Zion Church on Henry Street. An earlier Eagle article from Aug. 3, 1895 names the Rev. Augustus Steimle as the guest summer preacher that weekend at Zion. The story pointed out that while he resided in Minnesota, he was also a Brooklynite, and the son of Zion’s founder, the Rev. Frederick W.T. Steimle.

The Steimle family and legacy had a connection with the April 29 welcome service’s guest preacher. The Rev. Bill Paulsen, a longtime Heights resident, spoke tenderly and joyfully about his times serving Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church, particularly in being invited back repeatedly to speak at its Mission Society meetings and at spring festivals. Paulsen was later asked to serve as a coverage pastor. (Coverage pastors minister to churches who are without a called pastor at a specific time, such as for interim periods.)

“My first recollection of hearing about a Zion Lutheran Church was while I was at Union Theological Seminary,” said Paulsen. “My professor of preaching was a Dr. Steimle [Edmund Augustus Steimle, who was Brown Professor of Homiletics at UTS from 1961-75, before being named emeritus]. His grandfather was the founding pastor of Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church! Little did I know at that time that I would be a pastor in Brooklyn!

“At that time, (1983-85) there were lots of German immigrants still. The mission of the church was done mostly in German, and mostly to Germans. And in fact, that’s what kept the church going,” exclaimed Paulsen.

“There was another German-speaking church not far from here, on Schermerhorn Street. Their last German service was on Dec. 7, 1941. Now you remember what happened that day. and after that day, that church did not have any more German services. Well, that church disbanded long before I came on the scene under Pastor Baumann. They did not reach out,” said Paulsen. But at Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church, “it was Germans who kept this church going!”

Likewise, the Rev. Clint Padgitt spoke of his time serving as a coverage pastor for Zion in past years. Padgitt extended his greetings on behalf of Lutheran pastors in Brooklyn and wider New York metropolitan area, many of whom attended on Sunday. Padgitt also presided at the brief welcoming rite.

Gress, in his remarks, reinforced the importance of mission and outreach. He said that, in his daily walks and routine around New York City, he often hears visitors speaking German, and starts up a conversation, and extending an invitation to visit Zion here in the Heights. But even if only a few of them ever step inside the church, “what’s important is the outreach.” Gress emphasized the importance of greeting and connecting with people to learn more about them, and to share hospitality.

Whereas the church members in the past had taken an oath to conduct services and official business solely in German, the membership has expanded in recent years to include local English-speaking residents. Among Sunday’s worshipers were also some Scandinavians.

After the liturgy that included Holy Communion, the hospitality continued in the church’s undercroft with a relaxed smorgasbord of German specialties, such as potato salads, lamb, chicken and more.

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