FARGO — It's a fitting symbol of the day: Watching Golden Ridge Lutheran Church and Community Center Council President Karen Kooren, carefully — almost lovingly — folding T-shirts that read "Live Generously."
Two simple words that exemplify how this tiny north Fargo congregation is choosing to go into the future despite holding its final worship service next Sunday, June 16.
After much soul-searching and prayer, the council voted in January to close the church, 730 27th St. N., that started in 1956 in the heart of north Fargo's Golden Ridge neighborhood.
"It's heartbreaking," says Pastor Peter Schmidt, one of Golden Ridge's co-pastors. "I compare it to having a dog and loving the dog so much, but he's old and you know it's time to put him down. No one wants to do that. But it's the loving thing to do."
A building of memories
On the day of this interview, just a little more than a week before the congregation will gather one last time June 16, a few members were in the church basement looking through old scrapbooks and photo albums, stacking up old hymnals and songbooks and reflecting on the good days behind them. That includes everything from Christmas programs to Vacation Bible School — and even the day Evelyn Wilkerson, a member since the early '60s, earned the title "Potato Salad Queen."
"For our summerfest, I would make the potato salad. The first time we had it, we had 20 pounds of potatoes but we didn't have anything big enough to mix it in," Wilkerson explains. "So I scoured out the stainless steel sinks and made the potato salad there. One woman in the congregation was horrified that I did that. But it was clean!"
Wilkerson says she now knows to bring a big bowl from home.
Carl Dregseth has been a member since the church first opened in 1956. He vividly remembers the day in 1957 when a tornado ripped through the neighborhood, destroying the freshly built church where he had just started taking confirmation classes.
"I remember just two blocks from where I lived, everything was completely flat," he said. "The church was a square box with a roof. It was completely different than it is now. But it was leveled."
Golden Ridge lost three charter members that day, and 32 of the 80 families in the congregation lost their homes. Nonetheless, the congregation persevered and rebuilt a new church. As the years rolled along, Golden Ridge grew into a thriving congregation of more than 300 people by the 1960s.
"When I first came here there were two services, one at 9 a.m. and one at 11 a.m.," Wilkerson says. "And they were both full. If you wanted a certain pew, you had to get there early."
She says she still sits in the same pew — fifth from the front, on the left side.
But as is the case with many churches over the past 30 years, attendance began to wane at Golden Ridge in recent years. The congregation fell to just 44 people by 2014. Pastors say this year, between 10 and 15 people attend the one Sunday worship service every week. They stopped holding confirmation and Sunday school classes seven years ago.
The decline in membership comes not just from natural attrition and societal trends, but also changing demographics in the neighborhood. While the neighborhood might once have been home to many Scandinavian Lutherans, it is much more ethnically and religiously diverse now.
"Within a block of our church, six different languages are spoken as first languages," Co-Pastor Jessica Miller says.
But the congregants and pastors embrace the difference around them. Despite cherishing their memories of the Golden Ridge that once was, they've also chosen to open their arms and doors to their neighbors of differing backgrounds and faiths. For the past two years, the church, which added "Community Center" to its name three years ago, has held a monthly potluck dinner inviting anyone in the neighborhood to share time together. They say it's been a "holy experiment" that has worked.
"We get new people every month," Kooren says. "It started slow, where we had 30 people. Most of the time now, it's in the 50s and 60s. You're invited to eat whether you bring a dish to share or not."
Pastor Miller says it's not about recruiting new members. Instead, it's a way to fulfill the church's mission "to extend fellowship, serve our community and spread God's word." She says it's especially important these days when there is so much division in the world.
"We don't want to convince people to believe what we believe," she says. "This is about creating a space where we can gather and connect and just learn to build trust and become good neighbors to one another."
The congregation has also made it enticing to come to dinner, putting up a basketball hoop and tetherball for kids to use whenever they like. Others might just come for Dregseth, who is known as "Carl the Pizza Man" because he shows up every month with stacks and stacks of pizza that quickly disappear.
Pastor Miller says they'd love to continue the monthly dinners because they have so enjoyed being a part of the Golden Ridge community. After worship services end next Sunday, she plans to stick around and take part in an exploratory time when they can assess what God might be calling them to do in the neighborhood, including continued usage of the building as a community center.
The church building has been rented out by other faiths to use for services in recent years, and the Golden Ridge parsonage was sold to the Legacy Children's Foundation.
The congregants and pastors are inviting former members and the public to the final worship service on June 16 to share memories of Golden Ridge. Pam O'Leary will be there. She grew up here and moved to Washington, D.C., for 20 years before coming back and eventually finding a home again at Golden Ridge. She chokes up when she talks about the warmth and fellowship she's found here.
"It's been everything I remember when I was younger — the warmth, the hospitality and the food — although Evelyn, I didn't realize you were mixing up potato salad in the sink," she says as the congregants share a big laugh.
Pastor Miller says it has been a leap of faith to end worship at a place that has meant so much to so many people.
"I feel sad. At this age, I don't know where I'll go to church," Wilkerson says. "It's going to be hard leaving friends and my church family."
"I've visited a few places, but I don't know what I'll do. I'll just have to see," Dregseth says.
The group agrees they'll still plan lunches together to reflect and remember where they've been. But they also want to get together to see how they might continue to "live generously" into the future — with tears in their eyes, but optimism in their hearts.
"This decision to close is fully made with hope and trust of new things to come," Pastor Miller says. "While there is so much sadness and grief for people here, the hope for what is ahead comes from such a love for their neighbors in Golden Ridge that they're willing to let go of something that is so meaningful to them and let God do something greater here."
If you go
What: Golden Ridge Lutheran Church's final worship service
When: 9 a.m. Sunday, June 16
Where: 720 27th St. N., Fargo
Info: After worship, stick around for food and fellowship. Anyone with passions, resources or talents to help create a community center in the Madison neighborhood is asked to contact Jessica Miller at 701-552-1950 or email@example.com.