Friday, November 20, 2009

A Saint in the City: The Life, Faith, and Theology of John Steinbruck

Starting in February 2006, I began a series of conversations and correspondence with the Reverend John Steinbruck, formerly the senior pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C. I had been a member of Luther Place for several years when I lived in Washington, attracted to Steinbruck's articulate sermons and the church's emphasis on and commitment to an ideal of Christian social justice that I rarely see emulated in other churches. This essay is based on my conversations with Steinbruck, supplemented by some good old fashioned research.
To those who know him, John Steinbruck is a man of contradictions. A former Naval Chaplain with the rank of Captain, he preaches peace and protests the makers of military weaponry. The son of working class immigrant parents, he is an Ivy League educated man of letters. A faithful husband, father, and family man, he devoted his life to helping those without homes and families. A broad shouldered, husky man with a football player’s build, he possesses the gentle touch of a kind grandfather. A man of faith in an age of secularism. A preacher of the Social Gospel in an age of conservatism. A dissenter in an age of conformity. He is at once a prophetic visionary and a political pragmatist, a thoughtful intellectual and an impatient man of action.

It was not always so. In the summer of 1953, young John Steinbruck was in despair. He was a 22-year old Penn student, studying at the Wharton School of Finance, and he hated every minute of it. He did not fit into this "seminary for capitalists," as he would later call it. He was a man without direction, no sense of purpose, and casual faith. A bit of a hell-raiser, he frequented seedy bars and hustled money throwing darts and shooting pool. One afternoon, feeling down and out, having just ended a disastrous romance, he walked into a corner drug store. There, among the trashy romance novels and magazines, was a single paperback copy of Out of My Life and Thought by Albert Schweitzer. The book cost him thirty-five cents. It changed his life.

In Schweitzer, Steinbruck found an embodiment of moral virtue, a role model for a life of devoted service. Schweitzer wrote that, although he had enjoyed life as a philosopher, musician, and biblical scholar, he was plagued by "the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it." That so many people in the world were "denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health" led Schweitzer, at the age of 30, to enroll in medical school. He would eventually build and re-build a hospital in Gabon, West Africa, and devote the remainder of his life caring to the medical needs of Africa's poor.

Steinbruck's spiritual search led him as well to Martin Wiznat, a Lutheran pastor in Philadelphia with a powerful speaking voice and a magnetism that engaged people, traits that would later be attributed to Steinbruck himself. Wiznat's theological world view was unlike any Steinbruck had ever heard. Steinbruck had been raised in the literalistic religion of his German immigrant parents, in a little known sect called the Faith Tract Mission. A pietistic movement, the Faith Tract Mission was a fundamentalist brand of Christianity that was in rebellion to the more formal, established Catholic and Lutheran churches of Europe. Steinbruck found it a religion of self-denial that encouraged a detachment from the world. Through his relationship and talks with Wiznat, Steinbruck "suddenly discovered," as he told the Washington Jewish Week in 1990, "that religion and faith could be respectable and did not require believing in three impossible things before breakfast every morning."

Wiznat saw something special in Steinbruck and remarked that God may have larger plans for him. Inspired but somewhat reluctant, Steinbruck, an industrial engineer by day, began to dabble in seminary courses by night. His continued discomfort in the world of American commerce led Steinbruck eventually to enroll full-time in the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. There, Steinbruck was taught by energetic young professors who had studied under the top theologians of Europe -- men such as John Reumann, William Lazareth, Robert Borneman, and Martin Heinecken, intellectual giants in Lutheran circles. Steinbruck learned critical thinking in biblical analysis from scholars way ahead of their time, who took seriously Schweitzer's Quest for the Historical Jesus. Although not talked about publicly, these professors raised important questions concerning aspects of doctrinal Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, with an eye toward re-defining that which is truly fundamental to the faith. It was the beginning of Steinbruck's personal quest to engage Christianity as a worldly-wise faith tradition, one that did not shy away from the harsh realities of life here on earth; one more interested in saving lives than saving souls. “I don’t need to resort to miracles to confirm my faith,” he told me when I sat down with him a couple of years ago. “I am to deal with the realities in the world – racism, war and peace. If 45 million people have no health care, then it is my obligation to do something about it.”

In 1956, Steinbruck married Erna Guenther, the embodiment of altruism, a woman with an unending commitment to social justice. She was light years ahead of Steinbruck in her devotion to the church, and she possessed an unwavering faith. When Steinbruck met her, she was working long hours volunteering at a Lutheran settlement house in Northeast Philadelphia, where she assisted young children and displaced refugees. Years later, when the Steinbrucks had put into place a consortium of shelters and clinics servicing the homeless in Washington, D.C., while Steinbruck preached the visionary sermons on Sunday morning, it was typically Erna who worked tirelessly behind the scenes the rest of the week preparing the food, fixing the plumbing, catching the rats, and making the beds. "John Steinbruck talks it, Erna does it," was a common refrain.

Following seminary, Steinbruck became an assistant pastor at a small country church in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It was not a good fit, and he always seemed to find himself in trouble. When he downed a few beers at a local watering hole following a church softball game, he offended the teetotalers of the congregation. When he rode his motorcycle through town in his clerical collar, he challenged the congregation’s image of a small-town pastor. When he refused to join the Lions and Rotary Clubs, he disrespected local custom. "After that," Steinbruck told the Washington Post in a magazine profile of him in 1985, "I thought it was healthier to move on."

Steinbruck thereafter sought city churches, which he believed were great arenas from which to practice his brand of theology, and which offered many opportunities for creative ministry. He found that urban churches reflected the suffering and afflictions of their surroundings -- poverty, crime, decaying neighborhoods. It was in the city that Steinbruck found his true calling, confronting the affects of racism, discrimination, homelessness, economic inequality, and the injustices of American society.

Steinbruck served for ten years in Easton, Pennsylvania, a depressed industrial town with a melting pot of cultures and ethnicity. It was the early 1960's and the civil rights movement was in its infant stages. As some of his congregants were working-class blacks, Steinbruck became sensitized to issues that most suburban pastors avoided -- racially discriminatory practices in every aspect of the community -- that required action more than prayer.

In 1968, Steinbruck befriended two similarly-minded local clergymen, Rabbi Norton Shargel and a liberal Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Francis Connolly. In an attempt to confront the racial and other injustices in American society at that time, the three men formed an interfaith coalition, which they dubbed "ProJeCt," an acronym for Protestant, Jewish, Catholic. ProJeCt quickly caught on with the congregants of each religion, and they began working together to find solutions to the problems threatening a community that was tired of divisiveness among people of faith and favored a more positive approach to solving problems. The business community and local media embraced it and, not long thereafter, ProJeCt established a youth center, an infant wellness program, a free dental clinic, and summer programs for disadvantaged kids that took them to community parks and beaches. Now 41 years later, ProJeCt remains among the most effective community organizations in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley.

Through his friendship with Rabbi Shargel, Steinbruck became closely associated with the Jewish community, an association that would profoundly affect his ministry for the rest of his life. Rabbi Shargel taught Steinbruck that "as one works, struggles, with those who are strangers, we learn what pains them." Steinbruck accompanied Rabbi Shargel and Father Connolly on an interfaith trip to Israel in 1969. The Six Day War a recent memory, Steinbruck experienced first hand the positive exuberance of the Jewish homeland, its Zionist ideals of community, security, and cooperation. He also experienced its sorrow and pain. He visited Yad Vashem and the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. He learned of thousands of years of Jewish struggle and survival, and the history of anti-Semitism that has so often tainted the Christian Church. He visited the Western Wall, walked the streets of historic Jerusalem, touched the waters of Jordan and Galilee, and experienced the celebration of life -- and constant fear of attack -- that embraces Israel's daily routine.

Always a scholar, Steinbruck was deeply influenced by the writings of Krister Stendahl, a former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, who authored a seminal work on the apostle Paul. In it, Stendahl argued that the Covenant of Sinai remained at once valid and viable, and that Christianity was historically and theologically wrong in attempting to fulfill an evangelistic "mission" to the Jewish people. Steinbruck found this work liberating, believing that the history of proselytizing among the Jews was responsible for much of their brutalization and suffering, including the Inquisition and centuries of persecution, culminating in the pogroms of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust.

Steinbruck discovered the meaning of kiddush haShem, pursuing justice at all costs, from the teachings of Seymour Siegel, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This concept, together with the writings of other great theologians -- Dietrich Boenhoeffer and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel among them -- helped Steinbruck develop a central message, which eventually would define much of his life's work. As he told the Washington Post:
We are on this planet to exemplify that light, that bread, that living water, those metaphors that Jesus used, to live out the truth in a non-violent way, simply to do justice, live justly, try, in the space over which you're responsible . . . to create an oasis . . . to which the stranger can come and find refuge.
Steinbruck would put into place this concept of biblical hospitality at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., where he became senior pastor in 1970. Founded nearly a century before, in 1873, Luther Place was an historic, moderately sized, red stone church with a steeple located on Thomas Circle in the heart of Washington. Just five blocks from the White House – “King Herod’s Palace” as he used to call it – the church straddled an invisible border at 14th and N Streets between the halls of power, including embassies, fancy restaurants, and posh hotels, and the city's red light district, encompassing some of the nation's worst urban blight.

When Steinbruck arrived at Luther Place, he found a congregation beset with many of the problems confronting most big-city churches. The civil uprisings that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., had left scars on Washington's neighborhoods and businesses. Prostitutes and pimps, drug dealers and dope fiends loitered and lingered on the street corners. Steinbruck confronted a dying church with no sense of purpose. They owned 21,000 square feet of land, including five buildings, yet had visions only of building a parking lot. For Steinbruck, this was disgraceful. That Luther Place had so much space that was used only at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning was a violation of everything he believed and preached.

The church was renting out most of its properties on N Street, two of which were being used as houses of prostitution. One night, Steinbruck received a call at 3:00 a.m. because a pimp had thrown a young prostitute out of a third-story window. Traumatized, the congregation voted to tear down the row houses. Steinbruck thought otherwise, and under his leadership and guiding hand, a new way of thinking emerged. "All of a sudden," he recalled, "it occurred to us that the way to go was not to close up but to open up. We felt that if our space and our facilities could be used in demonic and anti-human ways, they could also be used in inspirational ways." Luther Place would become an open refuge to the “least of these” – the wandering, nomadic homeless of the nation’s capital.

By the early 1970’s, homelessness had become a huge problem in Washington, with growing numbers of mental patients released into the streets, a consequence of the de-institutionalization of mental hospitals. In response, a coalition was formed between the Community for Creative Non-Violence (led by homeless advocate Mitch Snyder), the Sojourners Community (led by the Rev. Jim Wallis), and Luther Place (led by Steinbruck) to provide shelter for those in need. Luther Place provided the space. "You don't need five years of seminary to realize that, when someone knocks on the door, you should open it," Steinbruck would later say. Inspired by Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me”), Luther Place established an emergency shelter, first with blankets, later mattresses, sprawled on the floor of the church sanctuary. Ten bodies, then thirty, then fifty, filled the sanctuary.

Not long thereafter, Steinbruck recalled, "We made an amazing discovery – homeless people need to eat!" So Luther Place developed a food plan and prepared meals. As many of the homeless were drug and alcohol addicted, they opened a drug counseling and treatment center. As many were suffering from mental illness, with medical needs long neglected, they developed a medical clinic and provided psychiatric counseling. All of this occurred without a plan or the wherewithal to pay for it. Yet people responded. Although the CCNV eventually went its own direction, Luther Place members volunteered and a growing community of supporters eventually chipped in, including the Sojourners Community, the Catholic Worker Movement, and the Jewish community. Wesley Methodist Seminary students volunteered for overnight duty. Many others provided financial and logistical support.

Conditions were primitive at first, but in time more and more volunteers appeared and the church became instantly filled wall-to-wall each night as, in the words of Steinbruck, “the grapevine community network reached the forsaken.” Luther Place, which had been struggling to justify its existence, now could not perish for the sake of those who needed it to live. By opening its doors to the homeless and becoming a place of urban hospitality and refuge, those who presumed to save the homeless, were saved by them. "When you have a reason to live, you live," Steinbruck said.

What eventually emerged was the N Street Village, a remarkable consortium of services that help the homeless regain their self-confidence, develop life skills, and prepare, step-by-step, to return to mainstream society. Today, the N Street Village is a four-story, $16 million complex made up of shelters and clinics that offer food, clothing, housing, medical care, and social and psychiatric services to homeless women and their children. “If you want to find Jesus,” Steinbruck insists, “go to where the outcasts are -- the sick, the homeless, the poor." With prostitutes and pimps outside the church, the mentally ill homeless inside the church, Luther Place created "an integrity of the Gospel that was not planned."

Steinbruck is always careful to note that the transformation of Luther Place and the "Miracle on N Street" was not about him and he refuses to take credit for its success. In fact, there were a lot of people other than Steinbruck who were instrumental in carrying out the mission that became N Street Village – Erna Steinbruck, the lay leadership of Luther Place, its assistant pastors and administrative personnel, the members of the congregation, and the many other religious and secular organizations and individuals who provided financial and logistical support. Together, they have helped provide hope and sustenance, food and shelter, care and compassion, to thousands of homeless women and families for nearly 37 years. But none of this would have occured without Steinbruck’s vision, prodding, and ability to articulate and apply the concept of biblical hospitality, of welcoming the stranger in our midst, into the real-life, worldly mission of the church.

The Miracle on N Street is only part of the life and legacy of John Steinbruck, the man of contradictions. He would go on to lead Luther Place in many other acts of Christian social conscience -- providing sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees, and protesting the plight of Soviet Jewry, apartheid in South Africa, and the U.S. military buildup. He would be arrested for numerous acts of civil disobedience, resulting in church censures and an expanding assortment of critics. He would be invited to the White House during the Camp David accords as a symbol of Christian-Jewish unity, then banished from its grounds for the next decade for trying to convince the Reagan White House to donate the leftovers from state dinners to the homeless (they refused). He would be honored as a distinguished alumnus at the seminary for capitalists, the Wharton School of Finance, where he delivered a speech called, “The Managerial Theory of Loaves and Fishes.” In all of his actions, he exemplified the ideals of Schweitzer and Bonhoeffer, King and Heschel, and inspired countless others -- those with a strong sense of faith and those on the brink of faithlessness -- to help mend and heal a broken world.


  1. Your wonderful piece on John and Erna Steinbruck deserves and invites comment. As Garrison Keilor has said, "I married into Norwegianism" when I married my wife, Mary. As a Catholic, I also married into Lutheranism. I quickly learned about wonderful Luther Place, its engaged members, active council and those gems John and Ernie. When we lived in D.C., we often attended Holy Trinity Church and Luther Place on the same Sundays; the former satisfying my Catholic bent and the latter my wife's Lutheran, PK heritage. I was fortunate that both churches interacted well and also that many of Washington's Jesuits exemplified the prophetic urban ministry of the Steinbrucks and the Luther Place flock. The Steinbrucks both taught me things I had only studied in books and still now only faintly reflect in my Christian engagement. I am glad you mentioned John's use of Matthew 25; that passage and the Great Commandment are amply personified in John and Erna's life and ministry. Certainly, it may not have been easy; good pastoral work never is. But, they both sowed seed that continues to bear nourishing fruit. All the best, John and Erna, and thank you, Mark, for your profile.

  2. I am so grateful to have met John and Erna while you were working on this article. It isn't routine for me to meet people who would easily qualify for sainthood (OK, I'm Jewish and we don't have saints), but who are so down-to-earth and entirely without any self-recognition that they define a life well lived. Their story is truly inspirational. It touches my heart particularly that there were no boundaries in John's vision -- it wasn't defined by a single religious view or narrow purpose -- but rather, it required the collaboration of people of all religious, ethnic and economic groups. The construct of "world peace," a goal which eludes our grasp at greater velocity as we evolve as a species, would be nothing more than a punchline at a beauty contest if not for the fact that the Steinbrooks provide a blueprint for it. If only their story was the rule rather than the exception in the macrocosm of the human condition.

  3. Bruce and Andrea -- Thank you both for your kind and thoughtful comments, which provide nice examples of the legacy and positive impact felt by the Steinbrucks' many footprints.