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“You ought to see it–it’s right there on your way home. Just turn right, into Dakota City. Watch for the signs.”
That I didn’t know the guy doesn’t mean I didn’t recognize him by type. He’s a Dakota County version of me–retired, a tad overweight and underserved by his hairdo. But the guy spills enthusiasm for ye olden days. “You can’t miss it,” he says as he rips through the pages of an old booklet to find a picture of the church he wants me to see, then shoves the entire booklet in my hand–a Nebraska Centennial History of Dakota County, dated 1967. “Take it along,” he says. It was right there on a museum table. There’s still a pile, should you want one yourself.
If you got the time, you can’t say no to all that enthusiasm. Besides, he says it’s not just any old church, but the very first Lutheran church in all of Nebraska, formed there two years before the War Between the States, way back in 1858, when a missionary named Kuhns crossed half the continent and the snarky Missouri River just to get here and preach the gospel to pioneers, which he did, preached the very first Lutheran sermon in a long-gone Dakota City Hotel–get this, the Bates Hotel: the first meeting of Emanuel Lutheran was at the Bates Hotel. (I’m not making this up.)
There is some sadness here in the story of the church, beside the chain-link fence that surrounds the place, some sadness but no murder, at least none written up in the Centennial booklet, which is itself fifty-plus years old. Sadness followed the place. Tired of the Bates Hotel, those goodly, godly Lutherans bought what was left of a store in a village wiped out when that rascal river flooded, but that frame skeleton store never made it to Dakota City. It went up in a prairie fire as it was being hauled to town.
Two years later, this very building–the oldest church in all of Nebraska–was built at a cost of $2000. That centennial book includes a story that somehow makes sense when you see the old church. The Reverend Kuhns and Emanuel Lutheran got themselves snowed in one Sunday, in the kind of brutal Nebraska blizzard old folks use to impress the kids. Just three men were there that day–that’s it; just the pastor and a congregation of two. Just as he had the snow, Reverend Kuhns shook off whatever reluctance or doubt he might have had and went on to deliver a Lutheran hum-dinger to the only two souls in the pews.
Even if there’s no snow in the air, I’ll swear that if, on some cloudy day, you look through the spaces of that chain-link fence all around, you’ll still hear that sermon echo through the place–in German, I’m sure–as if no time has passed, just the three of them there, sheltered in the time of storm.
It’s a shame that fence has to be there. You half-expect some “Beware of Dog” sign hammered in the grass. When I got out of the car, I couldn’t help thinking that today Emanuel Lutheran is a prisoner. Once a year it opens, I hear. Otherwise, there it stands, fenced in, in a quiet neighborhood of Dakota City, where it’s stood for a long, long time. There it stands, all around it that fence–Fort Emanuel.
Why not bring that old place away somewhere and open up the property to new housing? Why keep it around if it’s not going to serve the people it was meant to?–if it’s a fenced-in prisoner of its own old age?
It’s not nostalgia that keeps it there. Not the docent, not anybody in Dakota City, Nebraska, is old enough to remember attending regular worship in Emanuel Lutheran. There are no fond memories.
But there it stands, well kept, locked behind a fence so tall I’d need a ladder to get up and over. I had no need to get in, didn’t even want to, but it hurt to see that old church imprisoned. Still, as I stood there, that fence seemed to disappear. Strange.
I couldn’t help thinking we need our old Emanuel Lutherans. The sermons they preached, even behind fences, offer us the story of who we are and what we need to know about ourselves in whatever Dakota Cities we live and move and have our being.
“This old church still stands as a monument to the steadfastness of purpose of the early settlers,” the Historical Marker says, “and as a symbol of pioneer religious life.”
What the fenced-in church still preaches is simple: we’re not alone. There were others, in 1860 and long before that, truth be told. We are not the first.
We are not alone.
The Calvinist in me couldn’t help but remember the first Q and A I was reared with–“I am not my own. . .”
So I sent my Dakota City doppelganger a note, thanked him for his help and that Centennial booklet, then let him know that, as instructed, I’d stopped at Dakota City’s old Lutheran church. “Quite the place,” I said.