Diverse Congregation Draws On Historic Roots

by Peter Reese If there’s one word that could describe St. Marcus Lutheran Church on the corner of North and Palmer, that word would be diverse. From a 270-student elementary school, to a television ministry, to accessible and relevant worship, this congregation of over 700 members has something for everyone. Of course, St. Marcus was not always the diverse congregation that it is today. In 1872, when St. Marcus began as a 24 by 44-foot church and school, the targeted “outreach group” was first- and second-generation German immigrants. For more than 75 years the congregation retained its German composition. English wasn’t even adopted as the official language of the congregation until the time of World War I. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, however, St. Marcus began to undergo significant changes. As African-American families from the south moved to Milwaukee searching for economic opportunity, white people relocated to the suburbs in droves, taking financial and human resources with them. When senior pastor Mark Jeske first arrived in 1980, the area had endured the riots of 1967 and the closing of many businesses, most notably the Schlitz Brewery (1981). According to Pastor Jeske, the area hit rock bottom between 1980 and 1985. Absentee landlords (80%) presided over crumbling housing stock, rising crime, and extremely high unemployment. Two things allowed the congregation to survive, then thrive, said Pastor Jeske. The first was a congregation membership that was 80 percent white, 20 percent black, that had “a desire to exist, and a basic openness for evangelism and friendliness.” The second was St. Marcus school. “The school was the best thing we had going for us, as far as outreach to the community,” Jeske said. The congregation, as it grew to become roughly half black and half white, remained tolerant and affirming while retaining its roots. Worship styles have grown to incorporate a gospel choir called The United Voices of Praise, occasional Irish and Cajun influences, and a Sunday evening worship band that actually has roots in the DIY music community of Riverwest. The school has also experimented successfully under the aggressive leadership of both the current principal, Henry Tyson, and his predecessor, Kole Knueppel, who is currently superintendant of Hope Christian Schools in Milwaukee. School enrollment has grown from a low of 57 children over nine grades, in 1981, to the current enrollment of 270 in its new building. Today, St. Marcus faces new challenges. The neighborhoods are changing again. A flood of young middle- and upper-class white people are moving back to the area in order to take advantage of real estate values and proximity to Milwaukee’s thriving downtown. The significant leap of faith St. Marcus made in building their new facility carries a hefty debt burden. And school choice remains a program whose future in Wisconsin’s legislature is uncertain. But St. Marcus is up for those challenges. As Pastor Jeske exclaims, “This is where the fun is!” Find out more… For more information, browse these websites: (the church and school’s website) and (the television ministry’s website). You are also always welcome to attend Sunday services at 10:00 am and 6:30 pm. You may contact Pastor Jeske or his associate, Rev. James Skorzewski (“Pastor Ski”) at St. Marcus’ church office at 414-562-3369. A once and future resident of Riverwest, Peter Reese is a member of St. Philip’s Church on Holton and Chambers and plays in the Sunday evening worship band at St. Marcus.