St. Peter's Blog 'A Tribute' from St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – North Wales, PA's Blog

A Tribute

Image Friday, Jun 12, 2015
Author: Pastor Andreas Wagner

This is a tribute to the life and ministry of Dr. John Steinbruck who died earlier this year, in March 1, at the age of 84.

Here is a tribute to a very special Lutheran minister. Amidst all the media chatter about celebrities and what they are up to, we tend to forget  at times the extraordinary folks we are privileged to meet in  person. And amidst remembrances of heroes and heroines of times past we are sometimes kept from seeing and acknowledging the people who have influenced our life and thinking.
Here is a tribute to a prophetic voice in church and society of our time, a voice I heard and admired. When I came to this country - young, just shy of 30, - a pastor in training and on internship in Pittsburgh, I had the great opportunity to spend a week in Washington D.C., observing the ministry at Luther Place Memorial Church. It was an impressive place, bubbling with energy and passion for helping the underprivileged. This congregation had built a small empire of sorts, a kingdom of shelters, low income housing, social services and educational opportunities. It was an empire that Jesus would have loved, I believe, and the only sort of empire our Lord would have whole- heartedly endorsed.  Behind it all stood a man from working class German immigrant roots  who was influenced heavily by one small book.
We are all in a way resting on the shoulders of other people who have gone before us, influenced us, shown us the way. A Philadelphia native, John Steinbruck studied economy at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of  Business and received a bachelor's degree in 1954. He even worked in the business world, but realized early on that it did not fulfill him. He had a Eureka moment as early as 1953. This is how someone described it: "Without direction, no sense of purpose and casual faith, a bit of a hell-raiser... having just ended an ill-fated romance, he walked into a corner drug store. There, among the trashy romance novels and magazines, was a single paperback copy of "Out of My Life and Thought" by Albert Schweitzer. The book cost him thirty-five cents. He would later say that it changed his life."* Reflecting on this time from a later perspective he would add that he realized he did not fit into this "seminary for capitalists."  


By now you can tell that John Steinbruck was a red hot liberal. When I visited the place in what must have been the late fall of 1996,  he had, surprisingly, few good things to say about the Democratic President Bill Clinton. And it had nothing to do with Clinton's moral flaws, in case you wonder. You know, Clinton was just not liberal enough for him! I don't think that John cared too much about politics for politics sake and he was not afraid to criticize political leaders from either side of the aisle if their policies were wishy-washy on social justice. I began to learn something that I am still not finished learning: that you have to stand up for what you believe in, even if you end up being misunderstood or relegated to a certain label or political corner. It was not the politics that lay at the heart and soul of John's ministry. It was his deep concern for our country's poor, and his hatred (yes that's an accurate word!) of greed and social injustices; it was his encounter with Albert Schweitzer; it was the influence of his wife, Erna, who started volunteering at the Lutheran Settlement House at an early age and practiced social ministry long before John's Eureka moment: those were some of the people and influences he deeply cared about.        

John Steinbruck was born on October 5, 1930 in Philadelphia. As a young pastor in the city I once invited him to speak at my inner city church, Tabor Lutheran on Mascher Street and Roosevelt Boulevard in the Feltonville neighborhood. I learned then that John not only knew of the congregation but had been baptized there. His folks belonged to a pietistic circle nearby, but he later became more influenced by Pastor Wiznat who I believe served at St. Paul's Lutheran in Olney. John married Erna Guenther and they had five children. He graduated from the Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary and later obtained a Doctorate in Ministry there. He served briefly as pastor in Nazareth, Pa and then in Easton, before locating to our nation's capitol where his views and theology further developed in his encounter with the Jewish community and the in-your-face crisis of homelessness and poverty.

Here is one anecdote from my 1996 visit at Luther Place. Someone asked me about my education. Having just completed a very lengthy combination of academic and practical training in Germany, I made the mistake of saying, "I just finished my education." John just looked at me, shook his head and said, "Nope!" I knew immediately what he meant and that he was right of course. My education was far from being over. It had really just begun.

There was always this wonderful healthy distrust in him of pure academic learning, something that is more valuable when it comes from people with educational credentials. No doubt, John was a very smart man who built powerful coalitions and raised millions of dollars to support a broad and impactful vision of ministry. He was and remained a prophet with salty language and a knack for speaking the truth. He died earlier this year, in March 1, 2015 after battling cancer and Parkinson's Disease. He and Erna had retired to Lewes, Delaware. Later this month I will be taking the Cape May-Lewes Ferry with my family on our way to a vacation in North Carolina. When we come to the Delaware Shore I plan to wave something in honor of this great servant of Christ. He will be missed. His example and courage will not be forgotten.

Pastor Andreas Wagner

*  The quoted section was taken from a Wikipedia article.


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