I had a big surprise Sunday night. A couple of months ago, I was up at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in north St. Louis, and they asked me if I’d come to their Christmas banquet this year. I said I’d love to come to their Christmas banquet. They said they’d send me tickets. “Some” ended up meaning five. They’re generous people. I ended up using one–I didn’t feel like looking too hard for a date, and I felt weird asking a bunch of my friends who’ve never been up there to go with me on a rainy Sunday night.
My relationship with Bethlehem goes back several years. I moved to St. Louis in Nov. 1998, and immediately started going to a church in Oakville, a semi-ritzy, very white-middle class suburb in south St. Louis County. I was driving 30 minutes to go to church every Sunday because I had connections there, and I’d never seen a church that was so on fire. I liked it there. It was a church that made me better, and, as I would quickly learn, it was more than willing to let me make it better too. Mark my words: When you find a church like that, keep it. They’re harder to find than you might think.
In Faith Lutheran in Oakville and Bethlehem Lutheran in St. Louis, I’ve found two. And I’m much the better for it.
The north St. Louis neighborhood around Bethlehem is about as opposite of Oakville as you can get. It’s not ghetto, but the buildings are well past their prime. A number of them are condemned. Many others are boarded up. It’s lower-middle class at best. But there are people there who are trying to make a difference.
I’d been going to Faith Lutheran in Oakville for a couple of weeks when I started receiving its newsletter. And in that first newsletter was a blurb from The Rev. John Schmidtke, the pastor at Bethlehem. Faith is one of five suburban churches that has partnered with Bethlehem to reach out to its community. Pastor Schmidtke’s letter was a wish list of sorts, but he wasn’t wanting money or objects. He wanted people. “Who can help us build a computer lab so we can teach elementary computer skills to the people of our community?” he asked. “Who can help us give our children a safe, welcome place where they can sit down at a computer and do their homework?” At the end of the letter, he gave his phone number.
The next day, I called him.
He said he already had some beat-up PCs that had been donated to him. I asked when I could come look at them. I don’t really remember many specifics anymore, other than driving into north St. Louis in a snowstorm one night to come look at a pair of beat-up Compaq Proliant servers. They were DX2-66s, decked out with external SCSI CD-ROM towers. One of them had three SCSI drives. The other had five. They were pretty snazzy servers… in 1993.
It was a humble beginning. Pastor solicited some obsolete computers from other businesses, and since this was the midst of the Y2K crunch, he was able to find plenty of people willing to give up some 386s and 486s they’d just retired. The best catch was a pair of non-compliant Pentium-75s. One of them even had a hard drive–a 40-megger. No, not a 40-gig drive. A 40-meg drive, like most of us had in our first AT clone.
Basically, we had a whole lot of nothing, and I did a whole lot of nothing with it. Sure, I was able to impress a few people by taking hard drives out of 486s and putting them in those Pentiums and booting up DOS, but as far as doing anything useful, we didn’t have much. So the project pretty much sat there, a pile of beat-up PCs in the corner of a storage room.
Then one day in the summer of 2000, I got a voice mail message. It was Pastor Schmidtke. He sounded excited, but there was a certain plea in his voice. He had a grant for several thousand dollars, and it was pretty much there for the asking, assuming he knew what to ask for. He didn’t know what to ask for. So he asked me if he could have five minutes of my time to tell him the wisest way to spend a few thousand dollars to build a computer lab.
I hopped on the ‘Net and checked it out, then faxed him a shopping list. For the budget he gave me, I figured I’d be able to get several name-brand PCs and a laser printer. The grant needed three competitive bids, so I priced systems from IBM, Compaq, and Dell to give him ballpark figures, plus phone numbers to call to get hard quotes if that was what he needed.
A few months later he had the money. A couple more months after that, we’d turned that money into eight new Compaq Deskpro PCs. I wasn’t going to leave him high and dry at that point–what good is a room full of computers when no one there knew how to make them go? A couple more months after that, some volunteers had turned that storage room into a nicely laid-out computer room. So then I set about taking those PCs, installing network cards, cabling and hubs, configuring them identically, and connecting a printer. We had a usable network. An Internet connection was the tough part. I took one of those Pentium-75s, installed a 56K modem and an Intel 10/100 NIC, and configured Freesco. We were live. While 56K dialup split among 9 PCs isn’t fabulous, it’s better than it sounds–while people are reading pages, after all, their computers aren’t loading stuff. I tried setting up a Squid server to help ease congestion a little, but Squid seemed to hurt as much as it helped, so I scrapped that idea.
So now, three years after we initially met, they have a working, useful computer lab. Neighborhood kids come in and research and type. Pastor’s family comes in, and with that many computers at their disposal, the kids can play around all they want for hours and his wife can get work done. It’s not the best, but it’s worlds beyond a pair of Pentium-75s. And in a neighborhood where a Pentium-200 is considered a luxury item, it’s doing a lot of good.
So I got to the banquet Sunday night and sat down at a table. There was a program sitting there at every place. I looked at it. “That’s nice,” I was thinking. “Star of Bethlehem Awards.” There were two people listed. Then I saw people were picking up the program and flipping pages. So I picked up mine, turned to the inside, and saw there were more than two people listed. Two more on page two, and then I turned to page 3 and saw my name. With a really kind write-up to go with it.
They read the write-up, along with everyone else’s writeup, after dinner. They gave each of us plaques and asked us to say a few words. I don’t remember exactly what I said–I’m not very comfortable giving impromptu speeches. It was Pastor Schmidtke who had the vision and who got the money. And it was Cathy, a member of the congregation, who made all the phone calls and made all the runs to Office Depot to get things like power strips and network cables when I ran out of power outlets or didn’t have quite enough reach. Maybe I could have done it all without them. But chances are I wouldn’t have. No one would have. One person can’t take on a project of that magnitude alone. It’ll kill you.
The speaker who read the write-up on me was interrupted by applause a couple of times. I got a round of applause as I walked up and another one as I sat down. Helping people like them is easy, because they appreciate it so much.
I hung the plaque up right after I got home. I guess that says something about priorities–I have an expensive Jesse Barnes print I bought more than a week ago that isn’t hung yet. But the sentiment behind that plaque is worth more than a room full of Jesse Barnes prints. It’s a nice plaque. It reads:
New Birth at Bethlehem
We Thank God For You
For your ongoing support, encouragement, and Christian love to the ministry of Jesus Christ through Bethlehem Lutheran Church. You are God’s Star for the ministry of Bethlehem.
December 16, 2001
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO
Daniel 12:3 reads as follows:
“Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
There’s just one more thing I wish I’d said Sunday night. They’re a group of people trying to make a difference in north St. Louis. A lot of them are there by choice. They didn’t have to give me an opportunity, but they did. I’m glad they did.