Deep Roots in Northern California
Lutherans in Ferndale, Calif., bring the love of Christ to a town caught between tradition and change.
“We stick to the Word. There’s no tricks,” said Tom Hubner, who was baptized at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Ferndale, Calif., and now serves as an elder. “It’s a very loving and caring church. We have a bunch of good people here.”
St. Mark’s has the distinction of being the westernmost congregation of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in the contiguous United States. Ferndale is a small town with less than 1,500 residents, in an area famous for its Redwood forests. This picturesque, idyllic town has been used as the setting for many movies.
“Everyone in town, their goal is to create that … Norman Rockwell-ideal America,” said the Rev. Tyrel Bramwell, pastor of St. Mark’s.
But Ferndale is fighting. The battle may not be obvious or even perceived by those in the fray, but the struggle is real. Every day, the shift toward the progressive — toward even more disparate and new views of life — washes over this northern California community. At the same time, no one wants to lose what they have. History. Roots. A past that affects the present and, hopefully, the future.
“Our neighbors around us want to … hold on to the tradition, the past,” explained Bramwell, when talking about being a traditional pastor of a liturgical church in a progressive California town. “We are doing on Sunday what they are doing every week on Main Street.” But at St. Mark’s, the roots are not found in Americana or Victorian architecture, but in Christ and His Word.
Newlyweds Matthew and Rachel Shiney are meeting with Bramwell for adult catechism classes. They both treasure the deep roots that they find at St. Mark’s. Though much younger than the typical member, both Matthew and Rachel long for the one truth that anchors life, no matter when or where they live.
“I was talking to my mom about us taking classes here, and she said she was confirmed here,” said Rachel. “My grandmother was also a member here.” Yet the struggle between tradition and new ideas is real. Societal influence and scriptural teachings often collide as Bramwell meets with people interested in St. Mark’s.
A Long History
St. Mark’s enjoys a long history in Ferndale. This congregation was started April 26, 1906, and during its history has sent missionaries and started daughter congregations throughout Humboldt County and the surrounding area. Many German Lutherans came to the Eel River Valley, especially Ferndale, due to the dairy farming. Though dairy farms are still prevalent, artisanal lifestyles and progressive ideals compete with traditions for the focus of Ferndale’s residents.
But history is far from the only attractive aspect of St. Mark’s. “What I really appreciate about Pastor is his emphasis on Law and Gospel,” said Matthew. “A lot of churches I had been to excluded the law and sin. … If we aren’t sinners and don’t talk about sin, why do we need a Savior?”
Carol Russell was looking forward to her Baptism at St. Mark’s on Easter Sunday, and she wanted to make sure the focus was on Jesus. “When the choice was about being baptized on Easter, initially I was thinking, no, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want the focus on me, I want it on our Lord Jesus. But then I thought, no, that’s what He wants us to do. What a gift and a joy. It pleases Him, so absolutely. I want to be baptized on Easter.”
Active in the Community
Bramwell drives his well-known VW bus around Ferndale when he’s not walking Main Street. Everyone knows his bus. Some even want his bus in city events. Bramwell laughs and says that they want the bus for their pictures, not a guy wearing a clerical collar driving the bus. But the collar is welcome because it belongs to the driver of the bus. And sometimes the collar is welcome because Bramwell has shown that he cares about the community and its people.
“Being different from my neighbors doesn’t mean I don’t love them. The obstacle is how to bring Christ into their world in a way they will understand. We are trying to … bring Christ crucified for the forgiveness of their sins. … In Ferndale, it’s very neighbor-oriented. Just being a good neighbor gets us miles down the road.”The Rev. Tyrel Bramell
Whenever Bramwell is at church, he places a sign outside that invites the community in for meditation and prayer. Not many take him up on the offer, but people notice the openness and the effort to be an important part of Ferndale.
Love for neighbor flows out of love from Christ. And Bramwell teaches and preaches both, all pointing to God’s love for sinners on the cross of Jesus.
The congregation, like its pastor, is active in the community. Matthew described St. Mark’s by saying, “They do church well here. They love and support their neighbors.”
Bramwell works hard to be an important member of the close-knit community. “Pastor Bramwell has been a godsend,” said Julie Kreitzer, who owns a store on Main Street in Ferndale. “It’s been an inspiration to the community since he’s been here.” Bramwell serves as the secretary for the Chamber of Commerce and volunteers along with members of St. Mark’s in a lot of the events in Ferndale.
“I’m alienating myself from my neighbors in worldview, in my morals and in my beliefs,” explained Bramwell. “Being different from my neighbors doesn’t mean I don’t love them. The obstacle is how to bring Christ into their world in a way they will understand. We are trying to … bring Christ crucified for the forgiveness of their sins. … In Ferndale, it’s very neighbor-oriented. Just being a good neighbor gets us miles down the road.”
The community of Ferndale has indeed seen the love that Bramwell shares. And they are responding. The Bramwell family is currently facing a health crisis, as Bramwell’s son has been diagnosed with cancer. Ferndale held a community fundraiser to support the Bramwells, who must travel six hours each way for treatments. Ferndale typically requires significant time from new residents before they are accepted as one of their own. But the Bramwells’ love for the community has been reciprocated, even though they have only lived there a short time.
The windows in town promote love and concern for this conservative pastor’s family. Fliers advertising the fundraiser remain, even after the event. Love received and love shown.
As different as northern California might be from the settings of many LCMS congregations, the work is essentially the same. Bramwell visits his members who can’t come to worship. He visits those in the hospital. He serves with Word and Sacrament. “Like any other community across America or throughout the world, this community is full of sinners … . We bring to them the love of Christ, and we show them that they are not alone in their struggles.”
“The challenge is to get people to understand that the Lord is important,” said elder Tom Hubner. “That’s the way it is everywhere.”
- Find resources for sharing the Gospel in your community: lcms.org/witness-outreach
Pray with Us
Heavenly Father, Your Son prayed for His disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:17–18). You continue to send Your servants into this world with Your Word. Bless the work of LCMS congregations and their pastors as they proclaim the Word of Christ in the communities around them. Bless Pastor Bramwell and those who serve in similar situations, that they might find strength and boldness in their ministry. We ask this in the name of the one whose death sanctifies all who trust in Him, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
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Dr. Kevin Armbrust
Director of Editorial for LCMS Communications.