By Lauren Anderson
At the beginning of this century Christ Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin, had become known as a “country club church.” Founded by James Lloyd Breck in 1850, Christ Church meets in a Romanesque-style building with a Venetian Renaissance interior of soaring ceilings, a bishop’s throne, and elaborate stained-glass windows. Since 1899, the church with the 108-foot tower has stood at the corner of Ninth and Main Street in the western Wisconsin city of about 52,000 people. It could have easily become a museum, where faith is remembered more than lived.
Instead, the parish now welcomes people of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, develops global partnerships, and serves the community, while remaining grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
An intergenerational and multi-ethnic congregation worships in the beautiful nave. Welders, doctors, factory workers, professors, and homeless people sing out as the Rev. Patrick Augustine, rector since 2003, processes behind a team of acolytes and eucharistic ministers.
During the service, children play quietly in the back of the church as several teenagers watch them, allowing their parents to pay attention to Augustine’s sermon. Expositing from a passage in John 6, he exhorts the congregation to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
After Communion, Augustine introduces Diana Gorgos, the church’s missionary to Garissa, Kenya, who has returned to La Crosse for a brief sabbatical. Church treasurer Bob Weathers presents Gorgos with a $4,000 check from the congregation, collected from the previous week’s offering, to fund future projects in Africa. Augustine, born in Pakistan, offers the blessing in English, then in Urdu.
Christ Church bursts with the energy of a parish that has made the mission of Jesus, evangelism, and hospitality the center of its life for the past decade.
“It’s not about left and right, but what unites us, which is worship, the Book of Common Prayer, the person of Jesus, and proclaiming the gospel,” Augustine says. “When you turn your mind to Jesus and the mission of Jesus, miracles can happen.”
Jake Delwiche, a member of 17 years, approached Augustine seven years ago with an idea to start a weekly community lunch to foster fellowship among parish and community members. “It’s really important that the community provide meals for the homeless, but also for the lonely, the separated, the single, and those just looking for community,” says Delwiche, who admits that he hates eating alone. “It builds community when people eat together.”
Since then, Delwiche has prepared a group lunch, usually consisting of soup and salad, every Thursday afternoon, after a morning Eucharist and Bible study. The lunch, Delwiche says, allows people from different places to gather based on common interests. Half of the 20 to 25 people who attend are members, and the other half are from the community.
Meanwhile, the church has established a strong relationship with the Salvation Army of La Crosse, located one block away. Parishioners visit on Tuesday afternoons to prepare 300 sack lunches for children on summer break. Throughout the year, parishioners also assemble care packages of blankets and stuffed animals for children staying in the Army’s shelter.
In addition to Gorgos’s work in Kenya, the parish supports mission partners in Haiti, Pakistan, and Sudan. Through the Diocese of Milwaukee’s Haiti Project, Christ Church provides 10 scholarships at St. Marc’s School in Jeannette.
In 2009, the parish commissioned Gorgos, a retired nurse in La Crosse, as a missionary to Garissa Missionary Diocese, a desert area in Northern Kenya predominantly inhabited by Somali Muslim refugees. Despite resistance to Christianity in the area, Gorgos and other missionaries have been able to start a school, buy land, dig a well for people and animals, and establish two clinics. Augustine considers Christ Church’s support a reflection of its commitment to mission in the world. “This is a church that doesn’t set a limit, but sees a horizon to go to and beyond,” Gorgos says.
Augustine maintains relationships in South Sudan, Pakistan and South Africa, working extensively for interfaith reconciliation and advocating for the persecuted church. He visits each country often, bearing financial support from the parish. “Where CNN tells you not to go, that’s where we go,” he says.
Extensive mission work is possible because of generous funding, Weathers says, adding that the parish has practiced “unusual stewardship” in the past decade. Despite making minimal appeals for money, the church has seen 15 to 25 percent increases in giving in recent years.
Moreover, Christ Church has seen growth in numbers: attendance has increased by 32 percent in this same period. Among the new parishioners are young families, who have expanded the children’s ministry from seven to 30 children.
Amid growth and change, the parish looks for new opportunities to broaden its mission. “We haven’t graduated yet,” Augustine says.
“The Holy Spirit is like dynamite. The ways of God are beyond our understanding. I would like to see our joy, ministry, and growth be exploding so much that people can smell it; that they would know that this is a living church where Jesus dwells.”
Lauren Anderson studies journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.