The Rev. Lori Powell

"We're finding different ways to live out the Gospel," said the Rev. Lori Powell, pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church on Madison's South Side.

With just 20 members, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Madison’s South Side could be forgiven if it focused solely on keeping its lights on. Indeed, it almost closed two years ago due to unpaid bills.

Yet every Friday, upward of 100 people — some homeless, others unemployed or barely getting by — eat a free noon meal in the church basement, a ministry that has been going on for decades.

The church’s food pantry, open Tuesdays and Thursdays, helps feed 109 families each month.

And the congregation sends care packages of baby clothes and diapers to Third World countries.

It seems almost impossible that such a small congregation can do so much. The explanation lies in the relationships and partnerships the church has cultivated over the years.

“We have all sorts of people in the neighborhood and elsewhere who don’t worship here but who are heavily invested in making this place succeed,” said the Rev. Lori Powell, the pastor of St. Mark’s.

Dozens of volunteers from other churches and nonprofit organizations make sure the free meals get cooked and the pantry shelves stay stocked, all convinced that St. Mark’s Lutheran Church functions as a critical community center for a neighborhood with many needs.

“It’s important this church is exactly where it is,” said Debbie Thorp, 62, who lives nearby and has been a St. Mark’s member since her baptism there as a child.

The church is at 605 Spruce St., somewhat hidden in a residential neighborhood a few blocks south of Monona Bay. When I last wrote about St. Mark’s, in March 2012, it was questionable whether the church would survive.

At the time, the congregation had just taken a vote on whether to close its doors or try to find a way out of its financial crisis. The congregation decided to keep going but pursue a redevelopment grant through the national denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). As part of the ELCA rules that govern the redevelopment process, the Rev. Mary Pharmer, who had been pastor at St. Mark’s for 15 years, was required to resign, to be replaced by one trained in remaking churches.

For a variety of reasons, the redevelopment money did not materialize and the process stalled, said Lynn Miller, who was the congregation’s president in 2012 and remains a member. In hindsight, this was probably for the best, he said. The congregation regained full control of its destiny — it had ceded some power to the denomination’s regional governing body during the redevelopment process — and set about reimagining itself.

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For temporary pastoral leadership, the congregation turned to Powell, an ordained United Church of Christ minister who is married to Miller. The two met as co-workers at Madison Area Urban Ministry and wed in 2006.

As time went on, congregants said they realized Powell was exactly what the church needed. She was invited to stay on as the part-time pastor.

“She’s been a godsend,” Thorp said. “She has so many great ideas and she’s so upbeat. She believes in St. Mark’s, and she has everyone else saying, ‘We can do this.’”

Shirley Jonas, a church member and the coordinator of the free Friday community meals, said Powell sends the kind of Christian message she wants to be a part of.

“It’s, ‘How can we make the world a better place?’ as opposed to being all holier-than-thou,” Jonas said.

The church’s finances are now in the black. Other Lutheran churches pitched in with one-time donations, and St. Mark’s scaled back its staff, eliminating three positions. Rental income is helping greatly.

The St. Mark’s sanctuary is used by another congregation, Faith Community Baptist Church, and several organizations rent office space at the church, including MOSES, an interfaith group working on prison reform.

“I think people are finally starting to realize we’re not the dying church we thought we were or others thought we were,” Miller said.

Powell said she’s energized by the opportunity to create a new kind of church. She is particularly interested in making St. Mark’s a welcoming place for people with intellectual disabilities. The church’s sign on Spruce Street includes a drawing of a puzzle piece, the symbol of autism awareness.

As a single woman many years ago, Powell adopted two biracial boys with Down syndrome, Isaac and Tony. The older of the two, Isaac, who just turned 18, has been dubbed the church’s evangelism leader. He enthusiastically welcomes people, then, after a service, point-blank asks them, “Are you coming back?”

The church had 15 visitors in December, a hopeful sign, Powell said.

Reporter Doug Erickson explores matters of faith, values and ethics. You can reach him at derickson@madison.com or 608-252-6149.