Showdown on Midvale Avenue: SEPA vs Redeemer Lutheran Church

This is the eyewitness account of Judith Gotwald, who was one of two Redeemer members to confront Bishop Claire Burkat and other representatives of SEPA when they attempted to forcibly seize the property of Redeemer Lutheran Church on February 24, 2008.

In mid-February, Bishop Burkat sent a letter to Redeemer members announcing she was closing our church and announcing an afternoon congregational meeting on the same day that the congregation had already noticed its annual meeting in the morning. There had been no discussion with the congregation or its leaders about closing the church which in the previous year had accepted 49 new members and had many more interested.

Bishop Burkat’s letter to the congregation stated that the purpose of her proposed meeting was to “plan a closing worship service.”

The day the bishop had chosen without consulting Redeemer leaders was a day already filled with activity. Redeemer was not a dormant, dying congregation as the bishop had depicted but an active, vibrant church with a busy calendar. On this day, worship was to be at 10 am with a congregational luncheon at 11:30 followed by the annual business meeting of the church which had been properly noticed to all members. In addition, many of our members were planning to attend a family party for Pastor Mutashobya’s birthday in the afternoon. We informed Bishop Burkat through Pastor Davenport, directly by email and in a written letter that the congregation did not wish to meet that afternoon.

In addition, we questioned the bishop’s constitutional authority to call congregational meetings — and a bishop’s right to declare congregations “closed” without consulting with the congregation or its leaders. The constitution says that special meetings of the congregation may be called by the congregation president, the pastor, or by petition of the members.

On Sunday, February 24, 2008, Redeemer’s Congregation held its annual meeting as planned with a healthy quorum in attendance. We decided to cancel the luncheon. The congregation approved the Five-Year Plan which, along with a resolution to call Pastor Festo Mutashobya, had been shared with Bishop Burkat on November 1, 2007, the last time the bishop had spoken with us. Closing the church had not been discussed at that meeting. The meeting had closed with Bishop Burkat promising that we could work with Rev. Davenport in implementing our plan. The bishop had yet to follow through on any of the promises she had made at the November meeting. Regular calls to her office had gone unreturned.

As the Congregational Meeting ended, the congregation asked Stanley Meena and me to please be at the church that afternoon at 3 pm in case Bishop Burkat ignored our three notices. The pastor was unavailable due to the family party.

I arrived at 2:45 pm and stayed in my car across the street from the church in front of the public library where there is a good view of the church property. If the bishop arrived I did not want to confront her alone. I was waiting for Stanley Meena. It was my intent to simply drive home if the bishop did not come.

People started arriving. Bishop Burkat was among the first and was quickly joined by Rev. Patricia Davenport. Others soon joined them, including all four “trustees” (Tracey Beasley, Lee Miller, Ray Miller and Larry House). There were also several other men unknown to us in attendance. There were nine or more (four trustees, bishop, bishop asst, lawyer, and at least two others unidentified) far more than needed for the declared purpose of the meeting. According to the constitution, if a special congregational meeting is declared it must adhere to the proposed topic.

The group was gathering on the sidewalk along Midvale Avenue near the steps to the front door. Before the full group had arrived, Bishop Burkat walked by herself to the corner of Midvale Ave. and Conrad Street and then up the sidewalk along Conrad Street to the rear of the property. She stood at the back corner of our lot and looked up Penn Street. She then returned to the front of the church.

When Rev. Lee Miller arrived, he and a companion (another man with his hair pulled back into a ponytail) went to the church door and tried it. The two then went to the side door and tried it. They disappeared behind the church where I can only assume that they tried the nearest back door. There is a second rear door behind a wall, which I assume they did not try because we found it propped open later. They then returned to the front of the church.

Synod’s lawyer was also present. The bishop talked with him privately on the corner and the lawyer then walked away.

At some point — a bit late, two members of Redeemer arrived. Neither of them had been attending for many months and one had told us she was leaving. They did not participate and did not stay long.

When Stanley arrived, we both approached the group. Stanley was on the sidewalk. I stayed on the street, not crossing a pile of plowed snow. I asked the bishop why they were present when we had informed them that the congregation did not wish to meet. Bishop Burkat acknowledged that she received notice but asked, “Then why are you here if we are not meeting?” I responded, “I am here to protect our property.” I explained that the congregation had decided to not meet. Rev. Ray Miller quipped, “And how many were at that meeting–two?” I responded that the meeting had included the entire church council (10), two pastors and five congregational members. This group decided we should not meet to plan a closing service when there was no congregational decision to close.

Stanley noticed a locksmith truck drive by and commented with shock. He had heard a rumor that Bishop Burkat had boasted at a meeting in Chicago (national church headquarters) earlier in the week that she intended to come to our church with a sheriff and a locksmith on Monday (the next day). The quote from someone in Chicago was “She said, ‘I have the power to close that church and I intend to close it.'”

There was a little confusion. Pastor Davenport said, “This is a bad witness” and suggested we not meet today. I agreed that it was a terrible witness. She then suggested we all pray. Stanley joined them in prayer. I waited on the road.

After Pastor Davenport’s prayer, Bishop Burkat told Stanley and me that we could “return to our respective cars.” We said nothing in reply. Both Stanley and I stayed put.

The Bishop started toward the door. I said, “We are not opening the church.” She continued edging toward the door. I said, “If you try to enter our church without our permission, we are prepared to call the police.” Rev. Lee Miller, who was also moving toward the door, spun around and said, “You would have the bishop arrested?” I responded, “I don’t want anyone to be arrested. I want you to leave.” I elaborated that property ownership was a legal issue and should be resolved through legal channels.

The group then began to disperse. Lee Miller began to comment to me, “If you’d just talk with us . . ” I interrupted him and said, “Level the playing field and we will talk. This is not a fair forum.”

When it appeared that all had left, Stanley and I returned to our cars. I determined to wait for a while, following a gut feeling that this was not over.

Stanley was parked beside the church and he too waited a bit. After about five minutes, I saw him pull away and round the corner in front of the church, heading up Midvale Ave. I decided to wait still longer. Then I spotted Stanley’s car coming down Conrad Street. He had circled the block. He pulled next to a work van parked on Conrad Street. He blocked the van in. A man got out of the van. From a distance I could not tell who it was, but I thought, “He’s awfully well dressed to be sitting in a work van.” I got out of my car and started across the street. By the time I got there, Stanley was talking to the man. It was John Gordon, the synod’s lawyer. The van was the locksmith van which had passed by earlier. Stanley called our lawyer on his cell phone and handed the phone to John Gordon. The lawyers talked. Our lawyer reported later that he was telling him there would be no changing of locks without a court order and that he would call police if they did not leave the property immediately. He did not take this action, but just then two police cars passed by as is common in the city. John Gordon quickly made for his car, forgetting he was holding Stanley’s phone. He turned and handed the phone to me, nearly dropping it, jumped in his car and sped away. His car had been in front of the van and his departure gave the van room to pull out. The driver of the van lost no time in following Gordon.

Stanley checked the doors, finding the farther back door propped open. We wondered why but when we told our members, one remembered that after church, one of the children had been outside and someone left the door propped so that he could get back in. Stanley then left.

I waited another 15 minutes or so. I also returned the next morning and watched the property in case they returned on Monday as the bishop had pledged in Chicago.

It is clear in retrospect that Bishop Burkat, when she hiked to the back of the property, was looking behind the building for the locksmith van. It is not a great leap in logic to assume that she had instructed the locksmith to park behind the church and out of sight.

There was never any threat to have the bishop arrested as the trustees reported throughout the synod and continued to claim even after we wrote asking them to correct the record. The police were never called. The entire confrontation was unnecessary and forced Redeemer into a defensive stance before there was any attempt at dialog.

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