This week begins the 100th birthday observance of German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose “ecumenical vision” was the topic Randolyn Kay Gardner explored for her master’s thesis. Gardner received her degree from Wesley Seminary, Washington, D.C., in 1999.
I’ve been on an extraordinary journey since I left seminary. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been with me every step of the way—including to the doorstep of N Street Village, a D.C.-based shelter and social services agency for homeless and low-income women. This remarkable organization, where I work as a grant writer, lies within the shadow of Luther Place Memorial, its founding congregation.
At the time I first became familiar with N Street Village, I was an editor at a high-end publishing house, contemplating the next move in my life. Once I read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, I knew I would finally attend seminary, a lifelong dream.
Raised a Lutheran, I was aware of Bonhoeffer’s life story, especially his commitment to living faithfully in the world. Like other Lutherans, I was touched by how he faced overwhelming challenges with steadfast courage amid a global war and disintegrating society.
It wasn’t until I began to read his works, though, that I found a kindred spirit in him, especially his firm belief that the church must be present and witnessing to the wounded of this earth. I was so taken with Bonhoeffer that I focused my master’s thesis on his ecumenical efforts, especially the struggle to preserve the church as a manifestation of God’s kingdom.
Which brings me to N Street Village. After graduating from seminary with a master’s degree in theological studies, I chose to work within the nonprofit sector as a professional fundraiser. After stints at several organizations, I learned of the opportunity to serve at N Street Village, where I had volunteered a decade earlier.
I knew the village had started as an outreach effort by a socially aware Lutheran congregation in downtown Washington, D.C., located a few blocks from the White House. Luther Place parishioners and then-pastor, John Steinbruck, invited the homeless into the church for shelter and comfort. They believed it was unconscionable to leave the poor on the streets every night. Practicing a theology of hospitality, Luther Place exemplified “the Church of the Word,” a designation by Bonhoeffer to describe a Christ-centered community.
Since 1973 N Street Village has expanded from a makeshift shelter operated by Luther Place to a full-fledged, nonprofit organization serving more than 600 homeless and low-income women every year. Today it encompasses a night shelter, day center, wellness center, case management, rehabilitation and employment services, group homes, and low- and moderate-income housing for families and individuals.
With the support of the community, N Street Village completed an ambitious capital campaign, resulting in the construction of a 150,000 square-foot administrative building and housing complex. Out of the congregation’s humble endeavor to care for its neighbors sprang a comprehensive outreach program to the homeless that now serves as a model.
Getting reacquainted with Bonhoeffer led me back to my faith and the church—a living, breathing community that reaches out and embraces the dispossessed of the earth. Passing Luther Place every day on my way to N Street Village reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s witness and our call to be faithful servants to our brethren in need.
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