In merged Charlotte church, ‘every Sunday is like Easter’

On this Sunday morning, when nearly 2.2 billion Christians rejoice in Jesus’ victory over death, members of Charlotte’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church say Easter’s promise of resurrection will have special significance as they fill a sanctuary that was once half-empty.

Just a year ago, no one could have seen the transformation coming. It happened when St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church closed and many of its spiritually homeless members found Holy Trinity to be a welcome refuge.

This once struggling church has been reborn. The size of the choir has doubled; the congregation is more diverse; and weekly offerings are way up.

Now, said Pastor Nancy Kraft, “every Sunday is like Easter for us.”

This story of new life began on a Sunday morning last June, when about 20 former members of St. Andrew’s walked through the doors at Holy Trinity. They were grieving and angry. A few weeks before, the church where many of them had worshiped for decades had been closed unexpectedly, its locks changed.

The death of St. Andrew’s Episcopal, after more than 100 years in Charlotte, had left these members eager to find another church where they could stay together. So here they were at Holy Trinity, bunched into two back pews.

“Like sardines,” recalled Kraft, who was surprised, but delighted, that they had accepted her off-the-cuff invitation to come worship with her congregation in Charlotte’s Plaza Midwood.

When Kraft summoned worshipers, including the visitors, to take Communion, she was surprised again: Looking into the faces of those kneeling at the altar, she saw that those from St. Andrew’s were not the only ones feeling emotional. The eyes of many from Holy Trinity were brimming with tears of compassion.

Since then, dozens of other former members of St. Andrew’s have flocked to Holy Trinity. Most stayed.

The new Holy Trinity is a testament to how “resurrection is all around us. And it’s always a surprise,” said Kraft, whose thoughtful sermons have been soothing to those who arrived from St. Andrew’s. “This is not the same church. At all.”

A shocking, sad decline

The congregation at St. Andrew’s Episcopal last worshiped at their church on Central Avenue on May 26. At a meeting three days later, the church-elected vestry, or board, announced it was handing over the church property to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, which shuttered it.

Closing a church is almost always a traumatic event and usually has several causes. In the case of St. Andrew’s, the Raleigh-based diocese and others pointed to dwindling attendance (with 40 to 50 people some Sundays), financial troubles and lack of support for the priests at the church.

Members knew their church had issues and, for some, Sunday services there brought little joy anymore. Still, many were shocked.

“My four little ones were christened there, and two of them were married there,” said Ruth Alden, 93, who had worshiped at St. Andrew’s since 1954. “And my husband (who died in 2005) is in the Memorial Garden. … I can’t pass by (St. Andrew’s) without some tugs of the heart.”

Added Tom Brice, a member since 1976: “There was a whole lot of anger at the beginning – including from me.”

The Sunday after the church’s closing, some members gathered in front of St. Andrew’s, with prayer books and lawn chairs – but no priest. Later that day, some met again at a restaurant.

Kraft, the Holy Trinity pastor, also had stopped there for lunch. Too crowded, she decided, and was about to leave when she spied two friends, who happened to be part of the group from St. Andrew’s.

As Kraft chatted with the group, she could sense their pain. She mentioned a few other Episcopal churches they might check out.

But many, still furious at the Episcopal diocese and ready to try something new, perked up when she told them they could come to Holy Trinity that next Sunday.

They had one question for her: Do you have Holy Communion every week? Yes, we do, Kraft said.

That was exactly what St. Andrew’s refugees such as Elizabeth Thompson, 83, wanted to hear. They had become accustomed to receiving the sacrament of bread and wine every Sunday.

“To those of us who put so much power in Communion,” she said, “that was a reassurance that we were going to be all right at Holy Trinity.”

‘Different ... overnight’

Holy Trinity Lutheran was established in 1916 and, for most of its history, was a neighborhood church, drawing members from Plaza Midwood, Chantilly and other close-by communities.

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 that 40 people on Sundays. After that, the church started growing slowly but still had trouble attracting minorities and older members.

The main attractions: Kraft’s lively preaching – she started a Lenten sermon about time in the wilderness with a Tarzan yell – and Holy Trinity’s description of itself as a “Loving, not Judging” church, which drew some gays and lesbians who felt unwelcome at other churches.

But, with the arrival of so many from St. Andrew’s, “it became a totally different congregation overnight,” said Kraft, 61.

Still committed to social justice, still blessed with dynamic preaching, but bigger and more diverse than before. The 100 or more people filing into the pews most Sundays are now white, black and Hispanic; children and seniors; and couples, straight and gay.

Today, “there’s more energy in our service,” said Steve Allen, 54, a leadership consultant and president of Holy Trinity’s council. “And (the new members) have rolled up their sleeves to help out.”

The church has already elected one St. Andrew’s alumnus to the council. Bob Olah, 70, a retired plumbing contractor, is just as effusive about longtime Holy Trinity members. “They’ve been so accepting and so positive,” he said. “This was meant to be.”

Church cultures blend

Holy Trinity hasn’t changed its worship service, but the church has accommodated its new members in some key ways. The sanctuary walls are now adorned with Stations of the Cross – artistic representations of Jesus’ path to Crucifixion – that used to hang at St. Andrew’s.

The artist, Ginny Boyd, who has joined Holy Trinity, wasn’t sure her modern art version of the Stations would be accepted there.

“Here I am, a newbie sticking them on your wall,” said Boyd, 62. “But I have gotten lots of good feedback. ... As we were putting them up, one parishioner, 10 minutes after seeing them, said, ‘I love them. What are we going to do after Lent? I vote to keep them.’ ”

Another popular change at Holy Trinity: The Thursday YAH (for Young at Heart) luncheon, a tradition at St. Andrew’s. “It’s going beautifully here,” said Lynn Sullivan, whose husband started it 30-plus years ago. “And we’ve picked up a goodly number of people.”

Longtime members of Holy Trinity, meanwhile, are excited about all the new people in the pews. “We welcome them with open arms,” said Bobbie Slaughter.

And the newcomers have reached out in return.

“At first, all the St. Andrew people sat together,” Sullivan said. “Now we’ve spread out.”

A heavenly, unified choir

With the arrival of Easter, last year’s anger over the St. Andrew’s closing has faded. “I’m over that now,” Brice said. “We found a new home, and we are happy.”

Some former members admit they miss some of their old hymns and don’t yet know the new ones. But if there’s a symbol of how the two groups – St. Andrew’s and Holy Trinity – have become one, it’s the choir.

“Episcopalians and Lutherans fit together like hand and glove – musically and otherwise,” said Ronald Ellis, Holy Trinity’s director of music.

The church is bracing for as many as 200 people this Easter, the first time the two groups – those who came from St. Andrew’s and those who have been at Holy Trinity – will celebrate this most important day on the Christian calendar together.

And Ellis said he plans to end the service with the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah – traditional Christmas music that reflects the gratitude in the reborn church.

Alden, who’s joined the Holy Trinity choir in her 90s, recalled the tears she and others from St. Andrew’s shed those first few Sundays at Holy Trinity. They were not just for the loss, she said.

“They were tears of thanksgiving, too,” Alden said. “We were so needy when we walked into this place. And it was so joyful here.”

DiAnne Rankin, who was baptized at Holy Trinity in 1943 and has been a member ever since, also recalled that early emotion.

“Our church didn’t have a lot of members, and it was like God had sent them here,” said Rankin, 71. “I don’t know how we ever got along without them.”