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Downtown congregation to celebrate 150th year

In this downtown area where the neighborhood's needs for safety are high, where it might be more popular to make sure your car's doors are locked than to make sure you attend worship on Sundays, members of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1004 Michigan Ave., will celebrate their 150th year today.

The Rev. William L. Nelson-Loefke, the church's minister, said the congregation's longevity comes from the membership's willingness to work and apply themselves to the community around them.

The church's secret, says Nelson-Loefke, is "to never, never rest on your laurels." The minister, who has been here for more than five years, said it certainly has been getting more and more difficult for the nation's churches to attract and retain members. Back 50 and 100 years ago, people were much more willing to participate in their churches.

"A whole lot of churches will be closed in Niagara Falls before the year's over," he said, citing a plan by the Catholic Diocese in Buffalo to close one church in the neighborhood and consolidate four others.

Nelson-Loefke said church members need to go into their communities to work for people and to bring them into their flocks. "The church's mainline denominations have settled for many reasons into a social club."

He said the "status quo" is no longer acceptable. "One day people begin to recognize, 'My gosh, we've buried more members than we've taken in.' "

And the ability to build and maintain a church membership of 290 is definitely work. "It's not rocket science. It's taking a look at the Bible and looking at what Jesus did . . . He's out there in the community."

Nelson-Loefke also said 50 percent of the citizens of Niagara Falls do not belong to any church. "What does that say about the evangelism work the churches are or are not doing?"

He said he has been trying to change the way he and his members get out into the community. "The last three to five years, Zion's real focus has been more and more outreach . . . It's critical that the pastoral leadership of the church has to be thoroughly networked into the community."

Churches can grow, he said, if their members bring the community to them. "We're opening up the church to even town hall meetings," Nelson-Loefke said, adding that his members are expecting mayoral candidates to come and meet residents at Zion.

About 1,400 youths serving the city for projects last year came in and conducted volunteer service projects, all through Zion, Nelson-Loefke said.

"It's really about time the church was the central location in the community and it's distant. It's in the background now."

Nelson-Loefke said that since he arrived at Zion, membership has slowly stabilized and has begun to grow. "When I came to Zion, there were two kids in Sunday school. Now there are 48."

And as for his members, he appreciates all who come to his Sunday services to listen to his sermons, sing the hymns and pray with him. However, that is not where it ends, said Nelson-Loefke.

"You come to get the tools necessary, but the work of the church begins when you leave the doors of the church," he said.

The church will offer a 150th birthday celebration service at 2 p.m. today in the church proper. Following that, members of the Women's Group will host a coffee and tea reception.

Bishop Marie C. Jerge plans to attend the service, Nelson-Loefke said.

Jeanne Beales, who has been a member here for her entire life of 84 years, has helped to gather historical information to display to everyone who comes to the celebration.

She said she is also happy the congregation has been able to have Nelson-Loefke as its leader. "We're very lucky we have him. He's been putting his heart and soul into this 150th anniversary celebration," she said.

An avid collector of church history for Zion, Beales said the current church, built between 1895 and '97, cost the membership $23,396 to construct.

Helen M. Smith, secretary for the church's women's group, said, "It is a beautiful old church, and it's got the most beautiful stained windows in it."

Church members met in other locations prior to the opening of the current structure.

Smith credited Nelson-Loefke with keeping the membership going, even in a time when other churches are considering closing their doors.

"He's a man with a vision and he's determined to make it go."

e-mail: pkowalik@buffnews.com

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