Brian Heinrich and the Lutheran Urban Mission Society in Vancouver’s DTES

DTES allyway. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Vancouver’s Lutheran Urban Mission Society has its roots in St. Louis. That’s where Pastor Brian Heinrich, one of LUMS’ founders, went to seminary some 30 years ago. He was educated and inspired by a small group of progressive theologians who, having been censured by the Lutheran Missouri Synod, formed Concordia Seminary in Exile, or Seminex, in 1974.

“These were the bright young stars of the 60s and 70s,” says Heinrich, “many of them educated in Europe and trained in the historical-critical method, which put Scripture into historical context.”

And to understand the controversy, we must look precisely at that—its historical context: the Prussian Union of 1817, by which King Frederick William III merged the Lutheran and the Reformed (Calvinist) Church in Prussia.

“Many Lutherans didn’t want to be forced to merge,” Heinrich explains, “and so they fled to the New World, with the psychological mindset of  ‘we have the truth, and we have to protect it.’” A viewpoint which informed both sides during the Missouri Synod controversy at Concordia Seminary 157 years later.

After repeated reprimands and several failed efforts at reconciliation, 45 of the seminary’s 50 faculty members and a majority of their students walked out in protest to form Concordia Seminary in Exile.

“They left with the processional cross and the shirts on their backs,” says Heinrich. By the time Heinrich attended Seminex, the seminary had established itself in a storefront on Grand Avenue and was operating under the auspices of the Jesuits of St. Louis University.

“A reversal of the Reformation,” says Heinrich, chuckling. “Lutherans are like Jesuits,” he explains. “We’re the protestant equivalent. Grounded in deep learning, with a commitment to theology—and action. Because they had been exiled from the church body and had no parishes, [Seminex students] had to develop alternative ministry styles. And that’s the direct link from there to here.”

When Heinrich returned to Vancouver 15 years ago, he noticed that there were no Lutheran churches in the downtown city core. “It’s not that the downtown eastside needed to be Christianized; it was that the church needed to be engaged.” When he mentioned that to the church hierarchy, they all nodded, and, as Brian says, “that was about it.

"So I called a meeting with people in the community, and we founded LUMS as a separate not-for-profit organization—grass roots founded and supported. We were building out of nothing. I had to convert the churches: here was Lazarus at our doorstep, Christ clothed in the poor. I had to coax Lutherans who are internally focused into external, politically challenging situations. I went out to churches and took youth groups around the downtown eastside. It was intense and demanding.”

At first, LUMS had no office. Everything was on Brian’s cell phone. He worked part-time as a street priest for St. James Anglican Church Community Services until they ran out of funding. Next LUMS was invited to First United Church on Gore and Hastings, where they stayed for eleven years. Then came 18 months at Christ Church Cathedral. And then last November, LUMS moved to its own space at 360 Jackson Avenue.

LUMS is run on individual donations, not church structure. “Financial support for churches is shrinking,” says Heinrich. “The whole institution is in a huge recession. Some churches are closing.” So in a sense it’s good that LUMS doesn’t depend upon the church for its survival. “Individuals of conscience believe in our work, and this gives us broader support and keeps us truly independent.”

The Labatt Beer Employee Association, a dating service for young adults, and schools all send volunteers to serve food to the poor at the LUMS sponsored soup kitchen once a month.

“It’s the church as organic community vs. the church as facility,” he says.

In Brian’s theology, contemplation, scriptural study, and action are inseparable. His passion for social justice is fueled by ecumenical impulses. Heinrich has always had close ties to Catholics and Anglicans engaged in the downtown eastside: the Sisters of the Atonement, Father Ken Forester, and members of the Catholic Worker Movement. He preaches regularly at Christ Church Cathedral.

“The Eucharist is the heart of what I do,” says Heinrich. "Each Tuesday, when I walk to the [Anglican] Cathedral to celebrate mass, I pick up everyone’s woundedness and carry it with me to the altar.”

To find out more about LUMS, please visit their website: http://www.lums.ca/

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