If a picture is worth a thousand words, a life counts for a million or more. I recently attended a memorial service for Rev. John Steinbruck, who died March 1 in Delaware at the age of 84.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1984 to take the post as the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, John was already a legend in a city that is somewhat jaded by all of the personages of importance (or perceived self-importance). He came to Washington in 1970 to be the senior pastor of Luther Place Church. His church was at the corner of 14th and N streets, an area that a couple of years earlier had burned in the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Luther Place had a beautiful, historic building but its membership had made the exodus from the decaying inner city and its future looked dim. John liked to say that his church stood at the crossroads of prostitution, drugs and political power because all three were in the vicinity in great quantity.
I first met John standing on 16th Street across from the Soviet Embassy. The Community Council that I headed was the sponsor of a demonstration of solidarity with our sisters and brothers behind the Iron Curtain. Every day at 12:30 p.m., a different Jewish organization took responsibility for standing silently across from the embassy for 15 minutes holding signs that said “Free Soviet Jews.” The vigil took place without interruption for 21 years, from 1970-1991. John went to the Soviet Union in 1976 to meet with Jews. He came back deeply committed to the cause and on many Jewish holidays, John, along with a handful of his congregants, stood vigil across from the embassy.
But Soviet Jewry was only one of John’s many crusades. Aware that within a few blocks of his church a few dozen people slept on the streets of the nation’s capital, John challenged the churches and synagogues of the area to practice “Biblical Hospitality” by taking the homeless into their buildings overnight. The idea made for a great sermon but no clergyperson in town had the courage and the determination to walk the talk. How would a congregation support such an effort? What would it cost? How would security issues be handled? How could budgets accommodate the exorbitant insurance premiums that would result? John taught by example. His Sunday school classrooms were not being used. Let’s open the doors he told his board. His board raised all of the expected objections at which point John said: “This is a church and we don’t put God to a vote.” The sheer force of his moral argument carried the day and within weeks homeless people were invited to come in off the street to get a hot meal and a bed in Luther Place’s classrooms.
Very few congregations followed John’s lead in bringing the homeless into their buildings, but they were inspired to support his efforts through financial contributions and a legion of volunteers. John built a compassion-industrial complex, an array of institutions all growing out of his simple but profound commitment to help the most vulnerable among us. At his urging, Luther Place bought the townhouses which became a continuum of care facilities for homeless women. He then raised millions of dollars to build a state-of-the-art residential facility for homeless women called N Street Village. The homeless needed medical care so the Zacchaeus Free Clinic was founded where physicians volunteered their time to provide free care to the city’s homeless. To address the chronic food insecurity of the city’s poor, John inspired the founding of Bread for the City whose “glean machine” van picked up leftover food from events all over the city and turned that food into meals for the poor.
Realizing how many young adults were turned off to institutional religion but motivated to follow the model of the life of Jesus in serving the poor and needy, he created the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC) modeled on the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. For a year, recent college graduates would live communally in a house in the poorest section of a city and work with a nonprofit social justice agency, earning just enough money to pay for their expenses. The Jewish organization, Avodah, which offers the same opportunity for Jewish young adults, owes its founding to John Steinbruck.
It is breathtaking to realize the power of one person’s ministry to change the life of so many — from homeless people who got a new lease on life because they were nurtured by the institutions created by John Steinbruck, to middle-class people of faith who came to realize the religion can and should be about much more than worship and ritual.
As I sat in the pews at Luther Place Church during the memorial service for John, I could not help but think what our world would look like if clergy across the religious spectrum acted on their faith in the way that John acted on his. Very few are cut out to be a prophetic voice the way John was; it is a hard and lonely road. Yet people are hungry for that kind of inspired spiritual leadership in a world that seems more broken every day.
Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Clal – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., and the author of “Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World” (Jewish Lights).