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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Gifts for Baby Jesus

An Oregon congregation's 1940s nativity

Youth at Bethesda (Albina) Lutheran Church, Portland, Ore., held a pageant in the 1940s

Christmas pageants are a way young people have helped tell the story of Jesus' birth to friends and neighbors for years. Youth at Bethesda (Albina) Lutheran Church, Portland, Ore., held a pageant in the 1940s, where not only wise men but other children brought wrapped gifts for the Christ child.

While the history of African-American participation in the Lutheran church in North America began in the 1600s, concerted efforts by predecessor church bodies to reach out among people of color didn't begin until 1890. In 1889, a Caucasian jeweler began a Sunday school that reached out to African-Americans. It was quickly successful, and the Joint Synod was asked to provide assistance in 1890. The Sunday school became known as Lutheran Church of Our Savior in Baltimore. This work eventually led to the Joint Synod's Board of Negro Missions, which at first focused on Maryland, then in 1915 expanded into the South.

After the Joint Synod became part of a merger that formed the American Lutheran Church in 1930, the board became the Commission for Negro Missions. (The ALC was a predecessor of the ELCA.) After World War II, many African-Americans migrated to the West Coast and Lutherans began reaching out to them with missions in Los Angeles, Portland and other areas. Bethesda was one of those congregations. In 1950, the commission's work was transferred to the Division of American Missions of the National Lutheran Council.

The commission always struggled with shortages of clergy and funding for the work. Like many missions, Bethesda also struggled with funding to keep its doors open and finally dissolved in 1955. 


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