By Anya Bochman
Photos courtesy/Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
It has been a busy and historical month for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. In early August, the denomination, which consists of approximately three and a half million Christians, voted to become America’s first “sanctuary church body.” The concept of ministry to the oppressed and detained is central to this branch of Christianity, practiced in its congregations throughout the country. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church of Florham Park is no exception, using its gospel to aid the community.
Located at 160 Ridgedale Ave., the church itself has been undergoing recent changes. After the last fulltime pastor left the congregation in 2016, Good Shepherd finally welcomed a new spiritual leader on May 5. Beau Nelson, the new pastor, shares duties between Good Shepherd and St. Mark Lutheran Church in Morristown. In order to allow Nelson to preach at both churches on Sunday morning, Good Shepherd has moved its service back one hour to 11 a.m.
Nelson, of Morristown, originally hails from Minnesota, having come to New Jersey eight years ago. The pastor said that his rural upbringing familiarized him with the concept of splitting his time between two congregations, and that juggling the two posts is sometimes a matter of prioritizing.
“Coming from a very rural background, I have a unique insight into this situation. [In Minnesota] there would be one pastor preaching at three different local churches, so I am familiar with the concept,” Nelson commented. “Although we are still figuring things out, for example in terms of Christmas services – I can’t be two places at once.”
Nelson, who got married in April, did ministry work in Trenton and Jersey City, also serving at Lutheran Senior Life nursery home there.
“When the position at Good Shepherd opened up, I thought it would be interesting,” the pastor said. He added that he regards his joining Good Shepherd as an act intended by God, and feels “very welcomed” by the congregation.
Good Shepherd is a church of the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It is a diverse community of faith whose purpose and mission focuses on living out the Christian faith, serving others and accepting the Bible as the inspired Word of God.
“There is a saying [in ELCA], ‘God’s work. Our Hands.’ We try to do this,” Nelson said. “The congregation doesn’t just listen to the words of Jesus Christ but puts them into action, and it’s a blessing to watch this community do it.”
Good Shepherd members, who come from a variety of faith traditions and backgrounds, are unified by their adherence to Martin Luther’s theological teachings. There is, of course, the spiritual doctrine, which calls for faith in the triune God – God, the Father; Jesus, the Son; and the Holy Spirit. The Lutherans believe that God created all things and that Jesus is the Son of God, who was crucified on a cross, died, was buried and rose from the dead. In doing so, he saves all who believe and ask for God’s forgiveness from eternal death, and brings them to eternal life with God in heaven.
The concept of mercy and forgiveness is something that is central to Nelson’s own philosophy; the pastor described his approach to preaching as rooted in compassion.
“I do whatever I can to help the congregants grow in their faith. I don’t threaten anyone with fire and brimstone,” the pastor joked. “I try to show that Jesus Christ is a loving and merciful God. Even where there is loss, grief or death, God brings new life.”
There is also the aspect of ministry and outreach, what Nelson described as putting the words of Jesus into action. The numerous ministries that Good Shepherd engages in range from feeding the homeless to visiting with asylum seekers at Elizabeth Detention Center. The church gives donations of food and money to the Interfaith Food Pantry in Florham Park and serves the Community Soup Kitchen once a month.
Other ministries include donating Christmas gift baskets with presents and necessities to Seafarers International House in New York for seafarers separated from their families; knitting hats, scarves and mittens for children in Appalachia; and contributing to the ELCA World Hunger and Disaster Relief Programs. Additionally, Good Shepherd supports the armed forces with an annual special Armed Forces Day church service.
“This particular congregation, most of them are not members just because they come to church,” Nelson said. “Almost everyone is active in some kind of ministry, whether it is visiting with prisoners or shut ins, or helping with food donations.”
Good Shepherd serves as a mission partner to Waterfront Lutheran Mission in Jersey City and Santa Isabel Lutheran Mission in Elizabeth, with $1200 (roughly 20 percent) of its outreach funds allocated to each inner-city congregation. In 2016, for instance, the church donated $300 in Shop Rite food coupons to the Waterfront Lutheran Mission.
The church’s Committee participates in Family Promise of Morris County, acting as a support congregation for Stanley Congregational Church in Chatham for two sessions in 2016. In addition, $1,000 of the congregation’s outreach funds was given to the ELCA Youth Ministry Network. The Lutheran Home for Children in Jersey City received many toiletries and suitcases for “Love Sunday.”
Glen Derner, a Good Shepherd member who works in its administrative office, said that although official data for 2019 was not yet available, the congregation’s ministries have been consistent throughout the years.
“The monetary contributions don’t begin to speak to the outreach that is accomplished and the benefits to both the recipients and our volunteers,” Derner stated.
Good Shepherd team members regularly enter ICE’s Elizabeth Detention Center and talk to asylum seekers housed there. Described as “a highly personal and emotional ministry” on the church’s official website, the mission enables congregants to help the oppressed prisoners. To date, all of the inmates that Good Shepherd members have visited have been granted asylum. Additionally, Good Shepherd donated $850 to Pastor Ramon of the Santa Isabel Lutheran Mission to buy supplies for inmates at his ministry at the detention facility.
The center, a converted warehouse located in the middle of an industrial area near the runways of Newark airport, has been under almost constant fire from local advocates, including the Lutheran NJ Synod Immigration Task Force and several others, for what they term “inhumane and substandard conditions.”
“Visiting the center is a very important part of ministry – congregants visit with folks, listen to them, pray with them,” Nelson said. “The essence is caring for these folks who are detained and separated from their families.”
Christmas at Sea, the church’s December outreach program, works to collect satchels of gifts at “Seafarer’s Sunday,” along with Christmas wishes and encouragement to seafarers on ships in New York harbor.
Each month, members contribute food supplies to and serve food at the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown with members from Holy Family Catholic Church and Calvary Presbyterian Church. The Committee also collects bags and boxes of food from the Wall of Food for the Interfaith Food Pantry of Morris County. In 2016, more than 1,510 pounds of food was given to the Food Pantry.
Good Shepherd also has the Sew ‘n’ So’s – a group of congregants who meet at the church every Monday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to knit and crochet items for distribution to the needy. The Sews create hats, scarves, mittens, slippers and afghans, which are donated to Tender Loving Care Ministries, Seafarers International and the Community Soup Kitchen.
One does not need to be a church member to join the Sew ‘n’ So’s, and lessons on knitting and crocheting are available to new members who are looking to expand their skills.
Additionally, every year Good Shepherd participates in the Morristown Community Soup Kitchen Hunger Walk.
The church has continued with its missions in 2019, demonstrated by a number of recent engagements. In May, Women of ELCA (WELCA) sponsored an event at Good Shepherd that saw members of Jersey Battered Women’s Services (JBWS) instruct the congregation on recognizing signs of abuse in any relationship between men, women, teenagers and the elderly.
Last year, ELCA’s Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued a challenge to “buy a cow” to aid ELCA World Hunger Appeal. Each congregation that raised at least $500 was invited to bring the “cow” to the June 2019 Synod Assembly. Good Shepherd’s own cow, Cassius, was among 91 such creatures to grace the hallways during the Assembly.
On July 4th, Good Shepherd participated in the Florham Park Parade. Led by Nelson and accompanied by a church member driving his 1957 gold Thunderbird, marchers walked while wearing matching t-shirts that proclaimed “God’s Work. Our Hands.”
The sense of community and belonging is something that is echoed by Good Shepherd’s congregants.
“Good Shepherd Lutheran Church is a good grounding place for a journey in faith among people with a broad range of theological understandings, cultural backgrounds, social attitudes and economic circumstances. It mixes well. We have a good pastor!” wrote one congregant on the church’s Facebook page.
For his part, Nelson stressed the idea that Good Shepherd is truly doing God’s work with its many outreach programs.
“I believe that God has planted the congregation in a particular place for a particular reason,” Nelson said. “God wants us to care about our community, and try to always be a loving presence. Our job is to live the gospel outside the church.”