A jewel on the heartland
Richland Lutheran Church may be small but its members are committed to growing God’s church.
Head south from Fargo on I-29, drive about 25 miles to County Road 2 and wind your way along the Wild Rice River to discover a picturesque white, steepled church that could be the setting for a movie.
“A jewel on the heartland,” is how Dan Forsberg describes it. Dan is the newly installed pastor of Richland Lutheran Church in Walcott, N.D., a congregation established in 1879.
“An architectural masterpiece, like a well-cut diamond,” recalled Dan as he described his first visit to the church last fall while going through the call process. “Vaulted ceilings and a beautiful gathering space greeted me. I was inspired enough by the church itself, but it got better.”
Better, because he was invited to attend one of the highlights of congregational life at Richland — the annual lutefisk dinner.
Lutefisk for all
Officially called the Richland Lutheran Men’s Supper, this community-wide event started in 1930 and, except for two years during World War II, the dinner has been held the last Friday in October every year since. Last October’s dinner served more than 1,000 people.
“As far as I know it’s moved pretty much the same through the years, except we have gotten water and electricity at the church,” said long-time member Sharon Rostad, noting that many modern-day improvements were made possible from funds raised at the annual dinners.
“It is a community event, plus what I think is more important is the fellowship among the men. Some dads start their boys out when they’re in grade school. And then the men keep on (as long as) they possibly can,” said Sharon. “If they get short of help, the women are at the ready to pitch in. I’m not real anxious to get in there and help because I think this is so good for the men to have this fellowship and work together.”
“I wanted to jump in, to join the throng of men — young and old — who worked side-by-side, a team you wanted to belong to, be a part of,” said Dan.
Although the dinner itself has remained much the same for more than 80 years, there was something new to celebrate in 2013. The congregation had just completed a new addition with a much-needed elevator.
“We’d been talking about making (the church) handicap accessible because we feel so bad when it’s a struggle for a grandma to come to her granddaughter’s wedding,” said Sharon, who described how hard it was to know older relatives couldn’t attend special events such as confirmations and weddings because they couldn’t climb the stairs.
Accessibility for everyone
With assistance from the Mission Investment Fund, the ELCA’s lending ministry, the congregation launched “Building on Blessings,” a capital campaign that raised $500,000 — no small feat for a church with less than 200 members. “We have very generous members,” said Sharon. The new space, which includes a gathering spot for coffee before and after services, is a source of pride for the members of Richland.
“We have never seen so many walkers and canes and wheelchairs come into our lutefisk dinner.” Sharon estimated at least 100 people used the elevator.
The blessings continue
Richland is a growing congregation, filled with people who are new to the community as well as those whose families who have been members for many generations.
“There are a lot of people who say, “My great-grandparents are buried out there,” said Sharon, referring to the cemetery across the road from the church.
“But now we have a resurgence because young people want to get out of the city and come back to this area and raise their family, and raise them in our church. They are committed to the congregation being successful and they’re doing all they can,” said Sharon.
“Richland is a caring and hospitable community where everyone is encouraged to use their gifts for the health and building up of God's church,” said Dan, who emphasized that his visit last October provided more than a good meal and a chance to meet the members at Richland.
“It was an experience that generated hope, reminding me that God's church is here to stay, that God’s people were alive and well.”