University Lutheran Church in Palo Alto came about in the turbulent 1960's, when the nation, the universities, and the churches were polarizing around issues like the Vietnam War, Women's Liberation, Sexual Freedom, and political and individual freedom from inherited values. During the time of the Death Squads in El Salvador, the church social hall became a place of sanctuary for people fleeing Central American wars. It was a new voice in Lutheran Christianity for many students and townspeople. Today, in the midst of war and a global struggle for liberation, UniLu finds itself bringing new perspectives to old questions. The founding ministry of UniLu is to be a Campus Ministry congregation. We are also a regular worshiping congregation (even when school is out) as College Terrace's progressive Protestant congregation. Ministry here is organized into four Quadrants: Love God, Love Our Neighbor, Love Each Other, and Love UniLu. Love God includes sacramental worship, prayer, and Christian Education. Think of these as the ways in which we encounter the God within and celebrate the good news of Christ for us. Our Social Justice pillar is how we proclaim the good news of Christ for all of creation and includes volunteering, stewardship, in-gathering, knitting, cooking, serving, prayer, and service on boards of directors - ways we encounter God in the world around us as we seek to bring about the promised Reign of God.
University Lutheran Church History
In 1963, a group of active Lutherans envisioned the idea of a joint Lutheran student center at Stanford. The idea fell through. Pastor John Arthur then conceived the idea of a university congregation to be underwritten by campus ministry and the mission board of the Lutheran Church in America. At first the plan was to continue the campus ministry and form a separate congregation. Soon that idea was abandoned in favor of a plan where the congregation was the campus ministry. To everyone’s amazement, Escondido School was made available, and worship started at the beginning of October 1965. The group became alive officially on Pentecost 1966, the day of chartering.
When a “new hymnal” (which became the Lutheran Book of Worship) was being crafted, we were fortunate to serve as a trial site and sounding board for new hymns and liturgies. When this period of experimentation was over and the hymnal was published, our reluctance to settle back into use of only one hymnal gave birth to use of a repertoire of liturgies, a practice we continue.
The anti-war movement heated up, and many University Lutheran Church members were deeply involved—from participating in demonstrations and protests, including marching down El Camino Real, to working on various political campaigns. The church was dedicated on April 1968 on the Sunday after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and so time was built into our afternoon of panel discussions to deal with the national and local impact of this tragedy.
The theme for the day of Dedication was “What in God’s Name are We Doing Here?” and at that time, Pastor Rudy Johnson said, “What we have built is a tool, not a monument; a home for spiritual growth and ferment, not a sanctuary from the world. May it be well used for God’s purposes, not ours.”
In the 70’s, a group began gathering for singles dinners, an event which continued on a weekly basis for several years. At least five marriages—that we know of—resulted. We took advantage of the shape and acoustics of the sanctuary for the production of chancel drama, sacred dance, and evenings of special music—both vocal and instrumental. Also, we served as sponsors for the first of a number of families from various parts of the world whose lives had been made intolerable by war and other tragedies.
In 1983, University Lutheran Church was in the first group of congregations to join the Reconciled in Christ program by adopting an affirmation of welcome of gay and lesbian people. Among the many weddings taking place within our sanctuary have been ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples.
University Lutheran Church also began its participation in the Sanctuary movement, providing physical sanctuary and other assistance to several refugees fleeing oppression in El Salvador and Guatemala. Refugee families lived in the Education Building until a safe house, supported by University Lutheran Church and other area churches, was available to them. University Lutheran Church and other churches started the South Bay Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to helping those fleeing oppression, whose work continues today.
During Pastor Manfred Bahman’s ministry, we served as a conduit for collecting funds to rescue an Argentine family when that country was purging itself of its intellectuals. Our other ventures included helping a Chilean family escape oppression in that country, and financially and physically supporting a Vietnamese boat family of four for two years.
Under the leadership of Pastor Herb Schmidt, the Peer Ministry program began in 1986 - students supporting fellow students while reflecting the spirit and character of University Lutheran Church’s ministry: being tolerant, respectful, and welcoming to Stanford students of varying faith backgrounds; and continually, openly, and prayerfully questioning the faith we steadfastly hold. Weekend retreats that had been popular, but infrequent in the past, became regular events, with a “surf retreat” on Memorial Day weekends and a snow/ski retreat in January or February.
Eight German interns contributed to our ministry through a program that was funded almost entirely by the German Lutheran Church with some slight assistance from University Lutheran Church. Seven of these interns supported the ministry under the direction of Pastor Schmidt, and the last to be funded under this program began during the first days of Pastor Richard Foster’s ministry here.
Our commitment to providing an open forum for the free exploration of ideas means that our dialogues and discussions are never dull. Through the first Gulf War, the events of 9/11, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, we are keenly aware of the need to recognize and respect a broad range of opinions within the congregation—those of our members who serve in the military, those who march in opposition to our country’s involvement in armed conflicts, and those with many points of few across the spectrum.
Going into the call process when Pastor Schmidt retired, we faced the realization that the cost of housing in the Bay Area was going to be an obstacle to our ability to attract pastoral candidates. Some even within our membership were skeptical that such a small congregation could raise the capital to provide a Parsonage for our pastor. During the planning and fundraising phase of our Parsonage project, the congregation received a gift of a house that could be moved onto the site. Modifications and reconstruction still resulted in a cost of over $250,000, but through an extraordinary investment of time, energy, and finances on the part of committed members, alumni, and friends, the work was completed in early 2006.
Pastor Richard Foster arrived in 1999 and served here for 8 years, retiring from this ministry in 2007. Some of the hallmarks of his time here include focus on issues of justice and inclusion, inside and outside of the church.
Pastor Greg Schaefer has been UniLu's pastor since late 2007. In these years, we have seen a re-focus on spirituality in liturgy, issues of justice, benevolence, and civic engagement, and participation in hosting a women's shelter.