For 162 years St. John’s Lutheran Church, located at 915 Federal Ave. in Downtown Saginaw has served as both a beacon of hope and a hub for involvement servicing the needs of the region far beyond the parameters of the inner city where it is physically located. Founded in 1852 by German immigrants, today the church functions as a pivotal arm for a dozen other ELCA churches throughout the Great Lakes Bay area of Saginaw County, working with them to operate the Saginaw Metro Ministries Food Pantry, which on the fourth Sunday of each month services a breakfast for the hungry, while also offering numerous other community outreach programs, along with an 8-week summer camp for children. St. John’s also operates an endowment that supports 26 ministries.
Last October Pastor Connie Sassanella was installed as the new minister at St. John’s, bringing with her significant experience and expertise at leading a mission-minded congregation. A native of Port Huron, she left Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Salem, Ohio, to become the new Pastor at St. John’s and brings with her a vast array of inner-city experience coupled with a pro-active sensibility and acute sensitivity towards the needs of those from all walks of life.
Ordained in 1977, Sassanella was the first female Lutheran Pastor of the American Lutheran Church in Ohio. Besides her 13 years in Salem and previous service at Martin Luther in Youngstown, she also served at Divinity Church in Parma Heights.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with this committed and passionate woman-of-the-cloth to discuss her background, several of her life-defining experiences, along with her vision for how St. John’s can better service the community that is built around it along with the needs of the parishioners that comprise it.
Review: As the first ordained female pastor in Ohio, your experiences are undeniably unique. How old were you when you decided to pursue ministry as a vocation and devote your life towards the church?
Sassanella: In 1964 when I was 12-years old during confirmation class the Pastor asked what each of us wanted to be when we grew up and up to then I wanted to be a teacher, but out of my mouth came the word ‘Pastor’. My family had never been in church before he came into our lives, so when it came out of my lips that I wanted to be like him, everybody laughed and I had no idea why. Then a boy in the back of the room said to me that ‘Girls can’t be Pastors’, but he countered that notion and said ‘Connie can be the first’. Little did I know that would turn out to be true.
I did my undergrad work at Michigan State University and majored in Math and Spanish education, but before I finished went from St. Clair County Community College. I skipped 12th grade and was only 16 and too young to go away to school, and my last two years at MSU I received a call from Trinity Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, which was associated with Capitol University. Women were permitted into the ministry in 1970, and the provost said that he heard I was interested in coming to the seminary, saying they were ready to let the first girls into the fold. I graduated with degrees from both in 1977.
Review: What was that like being the first woman at the seminary? Did you get much resistance?
Sassanella: All my colleagues were men and were very gracious. The first call I accepted was to be in suburban Cleveland because I wanted to work in youth and Christian education. But I believe everybody could sense that I had a sense of calling. My presence there didn’t come from any chip on my shoulder, nor was it a feminist thing – it was just a sense of calling.
Review: What are some of the things that inform your own approach to ministry?
Sassanella: I’m very people centered. I would not be considered as academic as some of my other colleagues, but I have an extroverted personality and a heart for people and all life situations. Growing up in a family that was somewhat comfortable, but my father didn’t have a high-school diploma. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and owned a construction company. He taught me to treat everyone the same and I have a deep love for city ministries. Some of my happiest times are with people down on their luck or in difficult times, or those that have gone down the wrong road. Even in middle class suburbia, people become down on their luck and go down the wrong road dealing with various issues – there are just different parameters around it.
I attempt to encourage people to reach out to Christ and be his arms and legs in the world today. My guidance is like in Matthew: 25 when the people said, ‘When have we seen you hungry or thirsty?’ and he said, ‘When you’ve done it to the least of me, you’ve done it to me.’ This is really a parable worth remembering.
Review: So how did you happen to come back to Michigan and Saginaw in particular?
Sassanella: In 1984 I became assistant to the Bishop at Trinity Lutheran and then from 1986-2001 served as co-pastor and then became senior pastor at Martin Lutheran Church in Youngstown. I contracted a heart virus in the fall of 2000 and went to the Cleveland Clinic and was given a 50/50 chance of survival. My recovery was amazingly the fastest recovery at the heart management clinic and my cardiologist in Youngstown had only seen one other; but all these churches were praying for me. I had to be on disability for a year and follow many protocols and take high levels of medicine and adjust my lifestyle, plus I had two small children I was raising, so thought the best thing I could do was give up the Parish and God will provide.
As I got better the Bishop asked me to go to Salem, but about a year ago now the current Bishop for the ELCA in this area got hold of me. I was a student at the seminary when he worked there. I obtained a master degree in sacred theology, which is basically an academic degree in preaching and counseling and how preaching affects the counseling needs of people. Anyway, he and his assistant contacted me and convinced me to come here to St. John’s. They wanted a Pastor with inner city experience and initially I had no plans to leave and am old enough that I could retire, but that’s not what I want to do.
I’ve got a new life after my health situation, so for me this is an opportunity to begin again. Plus my brother, my cousins, and much of my family are from this area.
Review: Since you were installed in the beginning of November, what are some of the goals that you have for St. John’s that will help carry it forward into the next decade?
Sassanella: Initially, I see my role as one of building trust so folks can have trust in a clergy that is new to them. I also see my role as getting them through some of the grief they’ve dealt with over situations that have surfaced over the last few years, which is very common for churches that have either lost pastors or stability from not having a permanent pastor. I also see my role as getting members and the public excited for ministry and the basic teaching that has to go on. People forget basic concepts of faith over time. We have many good and Godly people that have a heart for the city, so my goal is to build that and work with the congregation so it isn’t my agenda, but our agenda – something we develop by working together.
Another goal I have is to develop a monthly banquet, modeled after one I helped develop in Salem that was modeled after one in Minnesota. This is not like a soup kitchen but more a monthly dinner where beverages are brought to people, flowers are on the table, and there is a graciousness and quality to the food and fellowship. So on Monday, April 13th we are hosting a meeting with people that want to be involved with providing these monthly meals on a regular basis. I want to build upon that concept and invite all people to attend this meeting, which will happen at 7:00 PM.
Right now the Eastern Michigan Food Bank operates a food pantry through this building twice a month that is serviced by all the ELCA churches, we do a breakfast once a month, and we also host four meetings of Narcotics Anonymous a week out of this building, so I want to see the building used for the community. There are many AA programs, but finding an NA program is pretty rare. The parking lot is full for those meetings, so this is all very important for our community.
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan operate an adoption and social care network upstairs, plus we now have an African American Dance Troop now in the building, so I am very excited about things that we are fostering, along with the positive things happening in Downtown Saginaw.
Building networking connections is important to me. Plus we operate an 8-week summer day camp that is well recognized and inexpensive, so it carries a long waiting list. We can accommodate 100 at a time, but I would like to maximize it better and expand it to include swimming lessons for free. We have one volunteer that is trained in Yoga and another retired music teacher, so I want to bring those talents into the fold and get people thinking outside the box more.
Education is also important. Since 2011 I have visited Jerusalem and other parts of Israel three times, so on Palm Sunday, March 29th following our 9:30 AM service I will share my experiences in a 90-minute program, which barely scratches the surface.
"The Holy Land of Three Faiths" will be the focus, since my interactions in Jerusalem are mostly with Muslims and Christians/Lutherans. On all three trips I stayed at Hashimi Hotel, a small family run facility located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. I organize my own travel and am not at the mercy of tour guides from Masada, Herodium and Caesaria (the places of Herod) to the places of Jesus: Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, and the many sights in Jerusalem. I’ve found that going with a tour guide limits both places one sees and amount of time spent.
In 2013 and 2014 I picked olives for the Lutheran World Federation Hospital Augusta Victoria as part of my trips. Augusta Victoria Hospital, located on the Mount of Olives and across the road from the Lutheran World Federation and our 800 olive trees, is the only hospital that will treat West Bank Arabs (Muslim and Christian) who have cancer.
Review: Very impressive. Okay, one final question: what do you feel is the most challenging component involved with ministry these days?
Sassanella: When I began ministry was much more congregational focused. You could spend your whole life just in that one church. It might be because in Cleveland the church had 2000 members, but Pastors would rarely venture outside of those structures. Today a Pastor has to be multi-disciplined and a little bit more of a social worker. It’s far more than taking care of one entity, which is a challenge yet also exciting. It’s an excitement for me; and on the other hand, a lot of people are not drawn by religious institutions per se, but are still asking faith-based questions. But it’s in the hospital waiting rooms and times of crisis when the need for most people arises. This is when people get down to the God question, usually. So I feel it is dangerous to be insulated and not see the bigger picture.
My love is for outreach and my goal is to reach beyond.
For more information about St. John’s Lutheran Church, please call 989-754-0489 or visit their website. The public is also encouraged to attend their Maundy Thursday Service on April 2nd, Good Friday Service on April 3rd; and Celebration of Easter on April 5th. Services begin at 9:30 AM.