The story of how Holy Trinity Lutheran, a once struggling church in Charlotte, N.C., was reborn began on a Sunday in June 2013. As the 11 a.m. service was about to begin, about 20 newcomers walked into the sanctuary and bunched into two back pews.
“Like sardines,” recalled Nancy Kraft. The pastor of Holy Trinity was surprised, but delighted, that they had accepted her off-the-cuff invitation to worship. The group was made up of former members of nearby St. Andrew Episcopal Church — many had worshiped there for decades. But a few weeks earlier, the church had closed unexpectedly, its locks changed.
They were grieving and angry.
St. Andrew’s closure, after more than 100 years, had also left them spiritually homeless and eager to find another church where they could stay together. So here they were at Holy Trinity.
When Kraft invited worshipers, including the visitors, to take communion, she was surprised again. Looking into the faces of those kneeling at the altar, she saw that the St. Andrew refugees weren’t the only ones feeling emotional. The eyes of Holy Trinity members were brimming with tears of compassion.
Since then, dozens of other former St. Andrew members have flocked to Holy Trinity. Most stayed. The size of the choir has doubled; the congregation is more diverse; and weekly offerings are way up.
On Easter, their first together, Holy Trinity’s sanctuary, once half-empty, was full — and then some. The new Holy Trinity is a testament to how “resurrection is all around us. And it’s always a surprise,” said Kraft, whose sermons have soothed the St. Andrew souls. “This is not the same church at all.”
St. Andrew members last worshiped at their church on May 26, 2013. At a meeting three days later, the church-elected vestry, or board, announced it was handing over the property to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, which shuttered it. The diocese and others pointed to dwindling attendance, financial troubles and lack of support for priests at the church. Members knew their church had issues. Still, many were shocked.
“My four little ones were christened there, and two of them were married there,” said Ruth Alden, a member since 1954 whose husband is buried in the memorial garden.
The Sunday after St. Andrew closed, some members gathered in front of their church with prayer books and lawn chairs — but no priest. Later that day, some met again at a restaurant.
Kraft had also stopped at that restaurant for lunch. Deciding it was too crowded, she was about to leave when she spied two friends who were part of St. Andrew. As Kraft visited with them, they perked up when she invited them to worship.
Holy Trinity was established in 1916 and, for most of its history, was a neighborhood church. But like a lot of churches in old Charlotte neighborhoods, it has struggled over the years to keep its numbers from sliding. It peaked at 700 or so in the 1970s. By the time Ohio-born Kraft became its pastor in 2005, Holy Trinity was drawing fewer than 40 people on Sundays. The church started slowly growing but still had trouble attracting a diverse population.
Kraft’s lively preaching (she began a Lenten sermon about “time in the wilderness” with a Tarzan yell) attracted some. And Holy Trinity’s description of itself as “loving, not judging” drew some gays and lesbians who felt unwelcome at other churches.
A different congregation
But with the arrival of so many from St. Andrew, “it became a totally different congregation overnight,” Kraft said.
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© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers