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Chelan church prays for and visits small churches in region


Paul Palumbo came to serve Lake Chelan Lutheran Church 18 years ago because they wanted a pastor who would do community ministry.

Paul Palumbo’s ministry is serving the community.  Photo courtesy of Paul Palumbo

In the interview he asked, “Do you really want someone to be involved in community ministry?  If you call me, I’ll do that.”

The community ministry aspect of this role has taken different forms over the years.

After running a food bank, teen center, a veterans program and a weekly prayer vigil, three years ago he started a prayer ministry and outreach to area Lutheran churches, an outreach that parallels his congregation’s visits with grieving and dying people.

Three years ago, he asked Bishop Martin Wells of the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for a list of congregations that were struggling.

Martin sent a list of 100 synod churches with fewer than 30 in worship on a Sunday.

On Sunday mornings during worship, Paul’s congregation prays for some them.

“We uplift 36 congregations and after five or six say a refrain, ‘Light the flame of hope in the heart of your church,’” he said. “It takes a minute and a half as part of prayers of the people.”

After praying for the churches for a while, Paul suggested that his church visit them.

So several times a year, he takes eight to 10 from his church in a van to another church, taking musicians if the church has no musician.  That church’s pastor comes to his church to preach and lead worship. 

“We get to know them, and they get to know us,” Paul said.

Recently they visited Grace Lutheran in Mattawa, where about 20 attend.  After worship, members of the two churches shared in coffee hour about their lives and their churches’ lives.

“That little church is working with the food bank and collecting food.  It is also supporting a bigger Latino ministry with 150 people, letting that ministry use the church building while it builds a church that reaches out to the Latino community,” said Paul. 

“In Mattawa, the Latino community is now four times the size of the white community,” he said.

Lake Chelan Lutheran Church has visited nine churches so far.

“Every church said that means a lot that many come.  They do not feel alone,” he said.  “Mostly it’s small rural churches.  The synod is geographically large, and the bishop cannot visit all the churches often enough.

“One congregation we visited voted to close and invited us to come to their last service,” he said.  “We had just visited once.  That speaks to the importance of this ministry.”

In addition to visiting congregations, 12 members have been involved since 2007 with the church’s ministry of visiting the dying, accompanying people who are terminally ill. 

They go to pray, sing and worship with people to let them know they are not alone.

For such visits, Lake Chelan Lutheran has written a liturgy, “Peace at the Last, Visitation with the Dying,” published by Augsburg Press.

It started because of a rash of deaths in the congregation. They lost many older charter members and several women who developed cancer at an early age.

The church’s visitation program with the dying works with the hospice program in the community.

Lake Chelan Lutheran Church, which years ago had been struggling, has grown and become more stable over the years. 

The congregation is rich with talent but divided on political lines, Paul said.

“My job is to be a go-between to nurture a sense of community,” he said. 

Paul said the church used to have dueling prayers:  One would pray for the troops overseas, and another for victims of violence around the world.

“Eventually that dynamic melted as older people began to see younger people as part of the church, people helping in the altar guild and with other aspects of church life,” he said.

“Part of Lutheran theology is to reflect Christ in our work with children, struggling families, poor families and immigrant families,” he said.

Paul, who grew up in Maryland, graduated in religion and philosophy in 1980 from Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., a Quaker school that introduced him to social justice, graduated in 1984 from Duke Divinity School, where his concern about Central America grew.

He and his wife, Virginia, were part of the “overground railroad,” helping Guatemalans and Salvadorans flee to Canada to escape the civil wars in the 1980s.

After graduating, he stepped away from the ordination process and hung wallpaper—his father’s trade—for three years. 

He was drawn back when the pastor of his church was leaving and asked Paul to lead worship and music.

He did an internship in Colorado and in January 1989 was ordained and called to an African American Lutheran Church in Durham, where he served 10 years.

When he was beginning to think about a change, he received, unsolicited, a file on the Chelan church and eventually decided to go there.

Within a year after he came, he was running the food bank and he did so for 15 years, serving 240 families a week in the winter and 70 in the summer, giving out 40 to 50 pounds of food a week.  Knowing Spanish helped him connect with many of the clients.

About 16 years ago, aware of concerns about drugs in the school, he started a teen center in the Methodist Church basement.  He served there 10 years. 

At first, it was a place for teens to go Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to hang out, play ping-pong and pool, watch movies, do arts and crafts, and have music.  About 30 teens came each evening.

Then they started a tutoring program with volunteer and peer tutors.  Teachers mandated students to go.  Eventually, the school incorporated it into an after-school program held at the school.  Now there are also health education and self-esteem programs.

Seven years ago, he started the Honorable Welcome Home program for veterans suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Twice in the spring and twice in the fall, the program hosts six veterans for three-and-a-half days, housing them together.  Volunteers provide helicopter rides over the area, sightseeing, wine tasting, massages and more to honor them for their service.

Over the years, 75 veterans have come with their spouses.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Paul and at least two others have held a peace vigil in front of the post office for one hour on Fridays, praying for peace.

“It was great after Sept. 11, but once we went to war, people thought our vigil was a protest.  Then they realized the war was terrible and joined us or said they were glad we were there to pray for peace.  We are now an institution,” he said.

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