As Easter approaches, a youthful congregation marks the end of its first year in a striking church — 103 years old.
As the saying goes, what's old is new again. But not too new.
“We practice cutting-edge, 16th-century Reformation theology,” quipped Pastor Erik Raymond, 36. “We're very old-fashioned, but we try to do it in a fresh way — engaging, compassionate and authentic.”
The assistant pastor is Luke Gorsett, a former Husker baseball second-team All-American. His rise toward the major leagues stalled two steps away at the AA minor-league level when the St. Louis Cardinals demoted him to single-A.
“That was a crusher for me,” he said. “I was on a road trip at the time, and everything in my apartment was shipped to me. But a FedEx truck exploded and all my things burned up. So not only had I been sent down, but all my stuff was destroyed. I had to ask questions about what was really important in my life.”
Luke, 27, can tell you all about the importance of Luke 24. That Gospel chapter includes a report of a post-Resurrection walk by Jesus, who joined two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Eh-MAY-iss).
The growing congregation that Pastors Erik and Luke help lead is called Emmaus Bible Church.
This month marks the first anniversary of its opening service at the old Wheeler Memorial Presbyterian Church, known for its six exterior pillars, its large stained-glass windows and its pipe organ.
The structure at 23rd and J Streets was getting old, and the Wheeler congregation was aging. Upkeep was too costly for the dwindling numbers, so it was decided to put the beloved church building on the market.
After early interest by the Learning Community didn't result in a bid, Emmaus stepped up and bought it for $425,000.
What soon followed was a touching transition. The Presbyterian congregation held its final service in the chapel at the same time that Emmaus folks held their first in the sanctuary.
Then the 75 or so members from Wheeler joined the newcomers for joint prayer as well as words from the outgoing and incoming pastors.
They embraced and promised to pray for each other. So did some others in the two faith groups.
“There were tears,” said the Rev. Ed Steinmetz, pastor at Wheeler its final 15 years and now retired. “It was both sad and joyous. Many of our people didn't want to leave — one had attended there more than 70 years — but they knew we had no choice.”
The Presbyterian congregation, founded in 1887 in a storefront, had lasted 125 years.
The South Omaha neighborhood has changed: Once attracting European immigrants, it now is home to many Hispanics.
After selling the 1910 church building, the Wheeler congregation merged with Mosher-Pilgrim Presbyterian near 48th and Monroe Streets to form Discovery Presbyterian Church.
Pastor Erik of Emmaus Bible said the Presbyterians couldn't have been kinder in welcoming him and his congregants and wishing them well. Emmaus, which had held services at Bellevue West High School, was thrilled to purchase such a beautiful, historic church.
Already, he said, the congregation has grown from 200 a year ago to nearly 300. Many are in their 30s with children, he said, but some are in their 40s and 50s.
“Omaha's evangelical presence is very light in this part of town,” he wrote recently, “and we have some tremendous opportunities for Gospel advancement.”
The pastor, who grew up Catholic near Boston, said he was a rebellious teenager who married at 18 and joined the Air Force. His wife, Christie, also served in the Air Force, and both were assigned as intelligence analysts at Offutt Air Force Base.
After their four years in the military, Erik worked at Mutual of Omaha, graduated from Grace University and took an internship at Omaha Bible Church, 7940 State St.
Emmaus became independent in September 2011, and members began saving money and praying for a new church. They had enough for a down payment when Wheeler Presbyterian became available.
They since have installed a new sound system and updated some offices. The main Sunday service is at 10:15 a.m., and about 25 men meet for Bible study during the week — Thursdays at 6 a.m.
“They meet before they go to work,” Pastor Erik said. “They are Air Force guys, firefighters, office guys, doctors and lawyers.”
The church stands behind South High School, and the pastor said he occasionally sees students who remind him of himself at that age. “I definitely have a heart for the kids I see walking around the school.”
As for his church's approach, Erik said: “We have a Gospel-centered DNA. We use three words to capture it: Christ, Gospel and community.”
Luke, the assistant pastor, led the Big 12 with 15 home runs in his final season at Nebraska in 2006, and in one game he hit for the cycle — single, double, triple, homer.
He hit 18 home runs in the minors, and his father gave him an “audio Bible” to listen to on long bus rides.
Not making it to the big leagues was disappointing. But when he helps someone to know the Lord, it's like hitting one out of the park.
Erik, who writes a blog and calls himself “the ordinary pastor,” said:
“A lot of times, guys try to be extraordinary. I just want to excel in ordinary things — prayer, Bible reading, preaching, teaching, discipleship. Not that those things are glamorous, but it's what we are called to do.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, firstname.lastname@example.org