Michigan's first black Lutheran church started in Detroit homes

Detroit, USA - In 1930, a group of black families meeting in their homes formed Michigan's first black Lutheran church for the small number of black families who missed their Lutheran roots in the South.

They held rotating church services in their homes to form St. Philip's Lutheran Church. The parish, first recognized as a mission church, shared a pastor with a church in Windsor, Ontario.

"They didn't have integration like they do now. So what the Missouri Synod did was to establish mission churches for (blacks)," said William Broyles Jr., a lifetime member of the church and St. Philip's historian.

The church's first pastor, the Rev. Raymond R. Pollatz, a white Canadian, is credited with building the church from the ground up.

Four years later, the church held services in a one-room storefront on East Warren near St. Antoine. In 1937, St. Philip's purchased a former synagogue on King and Oakland streets, and in the early 1940s moved to its present location on East Grand Boulevard, just east of Woodward.

"The church's evolution has been remarkable, I think," added Broyles. "We progressed from a one-room storefront into a large congregation."

St. Philip's established the state's first black Lutheran school, which opened in 1944 with 12-15 students and one teacher crammed in one room.

"She (taught) all the grades," said Broyles, a retired teacher. "For church service we'd have to pile our desks in the basement and then we'd bring them up on Sunday evening for school."

The school eventually became one of the city's largest Lutheran schools with 300 students and educated many children from the city's growing black middle class. It closed in 1996 for budgetary reasons.

When the church elders of St. Philip's Lutheran Church went looking for new land to build a bigger house of worship, no one wanted to sell the all-black congregation land in the area where they first wanted to build -- the predominantly white Boston-Woodward neighborhood. In late 1948, the city's neighborhoods were still racially segregated and the state of race relations was crippled. Just five years earlier, the city had experienced one of its worst race riots that left 34 people dead.

The congregation eventually settled in their current location on East Grand Boulevard. It was the first black church in a white neighborhood.

Pollatz sought to grow the church even more by going into black neighborhoods, inviting families to come worship at St. Philip's.

"He was such a fantastic man," Broyles said. "He helped organize feeding programs during the Depression. He was very at home with blacks. During the riots he helped the races come together. He was a mediator."

The Rev. David Burgess, who has served as St. Philip's pastor since 1994, said the church has always been a welcoming place.

"Even though it was the first black Lutheran church, it has never been one that did not welcome people of different ethnicities coming into this congregation," said Burgess, who is not African-American and noted that all but two of the church's pastors have been white.

St. Philip's Lutheran now has a small but tight-knit congregation of 200 members. It still services the surrounding the community with food programs and mentoring programs for youngsters in the area.