By BILL BUELL
NISKAYUNA — Putting a modern label on something that’s been around for more than 100 years is going to be problematic. For example, take the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Niskayuna.
The congregation, which will be 113 years old in 2015, is affiliated with the Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran denomination, but that doesn’t mean you can draw any conclusions about the membership, according to the Rev. Derek Lecakes.
“There are quite a few different Lutheran bodies out there, and of the top three we’re somewhere in the middle,” he said, referring to the generally more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the more conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
“We’re the second largest group behind the ELCA, but while they may be a bit more liberal, you can’t really use terms like that with us. We all agree that Christ is our lord and savior, and that he rose for our sins. As Christians that’s what we agree on.
“When it comes to politics, you’re dealing with a person’s conscious. What I teach is Scripture. It’s up to the individual person to listen to what I say and make their own implications. They make the decisions about how they live their daily lives.”
Lecakes, who is married with three daughters, grew up in West Albany and went to Colonie High School. He has been senior pastor at Immanuel Lutheran for 14 years since graduating from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
The church has been in Niskayuna since the congregation purchased a home and two lots on Upper Union Street across from the Mohawk Club in 1949. The group was founded in 1902 as a mission church of the Zion Lutheran Church on Nott Terrace and its original building was at the corner of Congress Street and Fifth Avenue in the Mont Pleasant section of Schenectady.
The Rev. Adolph L. Steinke told the Schenectady Gazette in November 1949 that the church was moving into its new home “free of debt,” and that the move was made because “the membership of the church is now centered in Niskayuna and on the north edge of the city, rather than in Mont Pleasant.”
The Lutheran Church has its roots in Germany, and those German immigrants who weren’t Methodists when they came to Schenectady following the Civil War started up the Zion Lutheran Church in 1872.
At Immanuel Lutheran, the German influence isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be, but Lecakes still has a few items that reflect the congregation’s heritage, including an old sign that dates back to the group’s Congress Street home. Also, there’s Helga Schroeter, a member since she and her husband moved to Schenectady in 1966.
“We came from Germany, and because I was very familiar with the Lutheran type of worship, and because I knew some of those old familiar hymns, I always felt very comfortable there,” she said. “I also like the minister very much. He’s very open to social ministry types of things, which are right up my alley.”
Schroeter, who is involved with the League of Women Voters and the Committee on Modern Courts, said she and her husband did try one other Lutheran church for a time, attending what is now the Refreshing Springs Church of God in Christ in Hamilton Hill when they first came to Schenectady.
“It had been the first English Lutheran Church in the city, and we had adopted some African-American children, so we were trying to find a Sunday school with a little more diversity,” she said. “But they soon closed and we went right back to Immanuel Lutheran.”
The congregation’s political diversity hasn’t at all been a problem for Schroeter.
“Well, to be honest I am not a very conservative person,” she said. “Quite the contrary. But I had one longtime member who has since moved away come up to me and say, very lovingly, ‘for a liberal, you’re a very nice person.’ So, as that goes, I think people here are pretty open-minded.”
“Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, most people here don’t care,” said Lecakes, who helped direct the Lutheran Capital Area Relief Effort after Hurricanes Katrina and Irene as well as Tropical Storm Sandy.
“We make jokes, we appreciate each other and we can laugh at ourselves. Like most Lutheran churches, we’re pretty autonomous, and we all agree to walk together in faith, believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God. That’s what we try to mold our lives around.”
The main sanctuary of Immanuel Lutheran holds about 130 people, and Lecakes said that about 70 members regularly show up Sundays for the traditional 10 a.m. service. The church also offers a more contemporary service with music on Thursday evenings at 8:15.
The building is in “pretty good shape” according to Lecakes, and the main sanctuary and church basement have undergone renovation in the last 15 years.
One of the church’s features this time of year is its collection of creches depicting the nativity scene. More than 300 were available for public viewing last weekend at the church, and while many have been put back in storage, there are still a significant number left on display.
“I have about 60 in my personal collection, and the others are on loan from people or have been donated to the church,” said Linda Lewis, a member at Immanuel Lutheran for 25 years.
“We have nativity scenes from almost every country in the world, and they’re made out of all kinds of things. We have creches made of everything from banana bark to paper, nails to coal dust, and balsam wood to newspapers.”
The collection of nativity scenes started back in 2006, around the same time another tradition at Immanuel Lutheran drew to close.
“For several years I would sing ‘Silent Night’ in German,” remembered Schroeter. “But as I’ve gotten older it’s kind of gone by the wayside. A lot of the older folks that it was meaningful for are gone. I think I’m the only one who speaks German fluently now.”