Chris Kramer is the pastor at Nativity Lutheran Church in Bend, Oregon and a 2022 Seeds Fellow. Like many ministry leaders today, pastoral ministry was not Chris’ first calling or career. He worked with the Boy Scouts of America in Seattle for the first part of his career as an executive, with oversight of program integrity, risk management, fundraising, and recruiting. This led into a second career in youth ministry.
After discerning a call to ordained ministry, he attended Luther Seminary. Chris said he was most interested in studying the mission of the church. “I’m interested in what the world aches for, and discerning how the Church will respond, if at all. I believe the church has something to say, that it has a legitimate response, but this response is not necessarily what the church is most familiar with doing. I’m very interested in the Apostle Paul’s teachings on the body of Christ. He says, ‘you are the hands and feet of Christ, and individually members of it.’ If the hands and feet of Christ are in the world, what does Jesus get accused of in the stories we have? Not going to church and politely singing hymns, making coffee, baking cookies, and having a little sale for the women’s guild. Jesus isn’t accused of any of that stuff. He’s accused of turning the world upside down for the sake of the poor, offering hope and renewal to the discarded.”
A wood bank and food bank
One of the unique ministries that Nativity Lutheran church offers is their Wood Bank. Every Saturday morning teams of volunteers at Nativity split firewood and distribute it to people who can’t afford to heat their homes. They ask for a $35 donation for the wood. “People have $35, they just don’t have $300 for a full cord.” Chris also mentioned that over half the volunteers for this ministry aren’t people who attend Nativity Lutheran for worship. Most of them don’t attend worship anywhere for various reasons, and others attend church elsewhere. “Nativity could never pull off the quantity of mission work that gets done here every week if we were dependent on just our church, but because we believe that the Spirit is calling us to simply set the table to do ministry that’s going to take care of the world, we get help that is way beyond us!” All the equipment, the tractors, the log splitters, hydraulic dump trailers, and the wood itself was either grant funded or donated, meaning the entire Wood Bank ministry doesn’t impact the church budget at all.
At Nativity they also are the local food bank for southeast Bend. During our interview Chris said that they had 52 families come and they each walked away with around $300 worth of groceries last week. “If you pick up about $150 worth of firewood and $300 worth of groceries for free, we put a $450 relief on your family budget and you don’t go homeless. So we are directly combating homelessness by being the church, because Jesus said, ‘when you do it for one of the least of these, you do it for me.’”
Living out mission
Getting Nativity Lutheran to be so outwardly focused has taken a number of years, but Chris didn’t have to do all the work himself. It started with his predecessor who changed the locks on the church (because all members had previously received keys upon joining) saying, “We’re not a country club for you, we’re a church for the sake of the world.” In addition, their mission statement was changed. “Called by the grace of God, we reach out to all people with the love of Jesus Christ.” Chris puts a strong emphasis on keeping this mission statement front and center of all they do.
In continuing to live out this mission, the people of Nativity Lutheran responded to the city’s homelessness crisis during the pandemic by allowing unhoused people in case management with a local non-profit to live in their parking lot. The project continued to expand by adding running water, electrical service, and a privacy fence. “We basically have a four unit transitional RV park in our parking lot.” Of the almost 30 households who have lived there since COVID began, two-thirds of them are now in permanent housing. The other third either still live on site or have moved back into the nearby National Forest. Many of those folks still come to the church and fill up their water tanks so they have clean drinking water.” Last summer Chris heard a few grumbles about dirty trucks leaving mud streaks across their parking lot, to which he responded, “What church has a mud streak like that—with that kind of story about saving lives? That’s a badge of pride and a mark of the cross for us.”