Our History

Housing and community development work has always been a part of the LCMS’ mercy work over the last 150 years. Beginning with the individual actions of local congregations, LCMS Lutherans built orphanages and shelters in the second half of the nineteenth century – providing housing services for thousands of individuals. This work was continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century and eventually expanded to include national housing drives like “Keys for Christ” and large-scale local housing projects like the New York Nehemiah program. Today, this work is continued through the efforts of the LCMS National Housing Support Corporation (d/b/a Lutheran Housing Support).


Early Housing Work in the LCMS

In the early years of the synod, it was up to local pastors and their parishioners to create and financially support diakonia projects. The very first of these local programs occurred in St. Louis, Missouri in 1859. Rev. J.F. Buegner, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Louis established a nursing station for the sick and poor, utilizing donated space and volunteer work from his church’s parishioners. By 1864, this station became the Lutheran Hospital of St. Louis after it moved into a permanent facility that had been built with $6,400 in privately-raised funds. The success of this hospital led to the LCMS’ first housing project.

The loose association that had launched the Lutheran Hospital’s development officially named itself the Lutheran Hospital, Asylum, and Orphanage Association of St. Louis in 1867. Under its first president, Rev. J.F. Buegner, the association spearheaded the construction of a children’s home for orphans on forty acres of land in Des Peres, Missouri. The association laid the building’s cornerstone on March 15, 1868. Six months later, the building had been finished and was dedicated. The facility initially served five orphans and two elderly, homeless men. However, by 1881, the children’s home was sheltering over a hundred orphans from over nine different states at once, some from as far away as Virginia.

Building a Legacy of Mercy

By the turn of the twentieth century, individual Lutheran congregations and associations had started six more hospitals in areas where large Lutheran populations existed. Similarly, the orphanage program from Des Peres, Missouri, was duplicated more than a half a dozen times across the country; again, in areas where Lutheran congregations and populations were present. Homes for the elderly, and placement organizations to find adoption homes for orphaned children were also built across the country. All of these programs were created with “no official, deliberate Synodical effort,” and were the products rather of “close-knit” networks of pastors and synod-wide publications that spread the word of the programs to donors and volunteers. However, as the synod continued to grow, new national organizational structures were on the horizon that would change the way human care programs in the LCMS were structured.

At the end of the 1940s, several LCMS social welfare organization leaders began to lobby the synod’s convention to incorporate the local programs of numerous LCMS churches into a single national synodical organization. Such an incorporation would lead to the standardization of professional practices among the many charitable groups in the LCMS. Supporters also argued that a more centralized agency was needed to coordinate the activities of a massive charitable network that, by 1950, consisted of “50 institutions… involving some 2,500 personnel in service to approximately 100,000 [people] annually.” Responding to these calls for centralization, the LCMS synodical convention established an exploratory committee in 1947 to look into options surrounding the issue. When the convention reconvened in 1950, the exploratory committee came back with a proposal to create a “Synodical Board for Social Welfare.” The 1950 Convention immediately established this board which laid the groundwork for a more centralized approach to mercy work throughout the church – including housing development efforts.

From Resolutions to “Keys for Christ”

Before the late 1960s, housing programs in the LCMS focused on orphanages and homes for the elderly and disabled. By 1967, however, church leaders sought to direct the church’s attention toward the problems of homelessness and inadequate affordable housing without rejecting past housing projects like orphanages and elderly homes. Three resolutions, proposed in the 1967 Convention, addressed these two new directions. The first of the resolutions, entitled “To Express Concern for Fair Housing,” began by drawing attention to the fact that, “large cities [of the United States] [were] faced with problems of housing adequately their masses, and non-whites [were] especially oppressed by reason of racial discrimination, which [assigned] them to ghetto areas and effectually [excluded] them from all-white neighborhoods….” The resolution called for the LCMS to create a broad program that would “reach every congregation and member in synod,” and inform these members of their “Christian responsibility to help.” In addition, the resolution also charged this new program with the task of collecting donations and pledges to fund additional programs that would address needs in affordable housing. The synod was required by the resolution to financially support the program’s administrative budget.

The second and third resolutions, “To Inaugurate Action on Fair Housing” and “To Provide Guidelines for the Elimination of Discrimination in Housing,” called upon the synod to honor its anti-discrimination stance laid out in the 1956 Convention by supporting the creation of fair housing. All three of these resolutions passed the convention and served as the basis for the synod’s new fundraising and informational program on fair housing entitled “Keys for Christ.” Unlike past housing programs, where each program was driven by individual congregations and local needs, the resolutions passed in the 1967 Convention provided a synod-wide, national program to answer a national need. This was a major shift in organizational policy, although not unexpected, considering the changes made to the social ministry structure of the LCMS in the late 1950s.

“One Turn Opens Hope”

Within six months of the 1967 convention, the new housing program of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was beginning to take shape. During these months, a committee on housing matters was appointed through the Board of Social Ministry. This committee consulted with numerous LCMS pastors, housing experts, and laymen to gauge both the need that existed for fair housing and the new program’s plan of attack. In addition, the Board of Social Welfare began to receive requests from congregations asking for information about how they could assist in the new “open housing” programs of the LCMS. Donations began coming in, and the LCMS Board of Directors also approved funding for a “staff member to promote [the] program.” Furthermore, individual districts began to request information and guidance on how they could carry out the synod’s goal.

The “Keys for Christ” campaign pulled in donations rapidly after its start. Early results from the LCMS’ first Housing Sunday event in February 1969 indicated that over $100,000 had been received with nearly half of the synod’s congregations participating. By June 1, 1969, total receipts had reached $250,000. By the middle of 1969, the “Keys for Christ” program was financially solvent and had a sizable amount of money in the bank from which to provide grants and loans.

These grants and loans went to a wide variety of LCMS-affiliated programs. “Keys for Christ” seed money was used to secure funding for large, low-income housing complexes like Hollybrook Homes, a project of the Florida-Georgia district of the LCMS. “Keys for Christ” provided $81,000 in seed money to the program which then obtained over $2,000,000 in federal grants to complete construction. The final complex consisted of 11 buildings, consisting of 183 family units, a capacity that could accommodate roughly 1,000 people. “Keys for Christ” seed money was also used on smaller projects like the King of Kings Lutheran Center in Fresno, California where the program provided a $2,300 grant to pay for filing fees involved in developing 100 units of low and middle income housing.

“Keys for Christ” was reaffirmed in the 1971 Synodical Convention when Resolution 9-05 stated that the LCMS would support housing programs across the country, first and foremost, through the “Keys for Christ” program. In 1973, the program received additional support from the Synodical Convention in New Orleans. In that convention’s resolution 9-07, “Keys for Christ” was praised for producing over $25,000,000 in low and middle income housing. The convention directed the Board of Social Ministry, which at that time had become the Board of Social Ministry and World Relief, to develop a stronger approach to LCMS congregations to encourage them to give more to the revolving fund. The “Keys for Christ” program did this by continuing to promote and support its Housing Sunday program as well as lending financial support to additional projects. By the end of its run in the 1980s, the “Keys for Christ” program had enacted a great deal of change through its relatively small initial investment of around $300,000. By 1980, a “Keys for Christ” informational piece estimated that the program had provided new housing for 10,000 people and helped create just over $60,000,000 in low and middle income housing during the previous decade.

“Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem”

The LCMS continued its support of housing projects into the 1980s with its involvement in the New York Nehemiah program through its support of the neighborhood group, East Brooklyn Churches (EBC). The EBC organization informally began operations in 1978 with the help of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing group. The coalition initially consisted of thirty-six local congregations from multiple denominations, including the LCMS, Catholic, Baptist, and Episcopal churches as well as some other non-denominational churches. Its focus was to rebuild the East Brooklyn community through an affordable housing development program named the Nehemiah Plan – named after the Old Testament leader, Nehemiah, who led the third return of the Israelites to Jerusalem after their captivity in Persia. Upon his return to the city, Nehemiah advocated for and oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. This massive construction project involved the entire Jerusalem community and reestablished the city’s standing among its neighbors. In the same way, the Brooklyn Nehemiah project leaders fervently hoped that the people of East Brooklyn would likewise band together to rebuild their community. If they succeeded, East Brooklyn would, like Jerusalem, return to the better days of years past.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was approached in January, 1982 for funding by two of its congregations, St. Peter’s and Risen Christ Lutheran churches, which were involved directly in the East Brooklyn area and were affiliated with EBC. The request, which first came to the LCMS Board for Mission Services, was for an amount of $1,000,000 to be contributed to the Nehemiah revolving fund. Based on the materials that it received from the EBC, the Board for Social Missions immediately referred the project to the synodical Board of Directors with the strong recommendation that the synod should provide the $1,000,000 for the Nehemiah Plan. In its resolution of action to the Board of Directors, the Board for Social Missions noted:

“The Nehemiah Plan” proposes an exciting and realistic approach to the rebuilding of these central city areas and offers the possibility of becoming a workable and acceptable model for other devastated central cities; and [it] offers the churches involved, including two Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregations (Risen Christ and St. Peter’s) the return of a stable community and a rebuilding of their membership and a return to self-support and self-esteem. [“The Nehemiah Plan”] offers denominations willing to become involved a unique opportunity to work together in demonstrating that the spoken concern for needs and conditions of people and the betterment of living conditions is real [and] that such cooperation can happen without violation of denominational positions….”

The LCMS was the first national church body to give a major million dollar gift to the revolving fund, and its financial commitment to the program spurred the other national church bodies to also provide funds to the program. In a 2004 celebration of the Nehemiah program, EBC’s lead organizer Mike Gecan noted that this initial no-interest loan from the LCMS was “pivotal to building support for an effort that [by 2004 had] had an extraordinary impact.” By the middle of 1982, the revolving fund had collected $8,000,000, with the main contributors being the LCMS, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Episcopal Church. With the majority of its revolving loan fund in place, the EBC immediately began to move ahead with building plans.

New York Nehemiah

The EBC officially announced the Nehemiah Plan’s start on June 29, 1982. In its official announcement, it set a goal to build 5,000 new, single family homes in the New York communities of “Ocean Hill, Brownsville, and East New York,” all Brooklyn neighborhoods. In addition to their revolving loan fund, EBC also requested that the City of New York provide $10,000,000 in loan assistance funding for homebuyers from federally-funded community development grants. It also requested that the city Read More sell the numerous vacant lots in the Brooklyn target areas to the Nehemiah Plan at “nominal prices.” Cheap land and loan assistance, when combined with the Nehemiah building practices, would help the EBC keep the mortgage costs for these new homes low. Less than a month later, the city established the $10,000,000 loan assistance fund which provided $10,000 no-interest loans towards the mortgages of the first 1,000 Nehemiah residents. When the city also proposed selling all of the vacant land that Nehemiah required for one dollar a parcel, the program immediately secured seven hundred parcels of land at the one dollar price, and launched plans to begin construction in March, 1983. By 1986, 400 Nehemiah homes had been built in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. The first part of Nehemiah Phase I, which had centered on Brownsville, ended in 1988 and created 1,200 new units of low-income, single family housing. Immediately after Part I’s completion, Part II began in East New York, another Brooklyn community. By 1993, Part II was completed in its entirety with the successful completion of 1,100 new Nehemiah homes in that neighborhood. Altogether, the first phase of the Nehemiah program, in its two parts, had produced 2,300 new homes for low-income families by 1993. This early success led to local split-offs. Churches in the South Bronx, for example, joined together to create the South Bronx Churches, a copy of the EBC. By the turn of the century, this South Bronx group had constructed another 1,000 units of affordable housing its own. Also at the end of the decade, the original EBC Nehemiah had raised their total number of homes completed in the Brooklyn area to 2,900 units. In Nehemiah’s first two phases, roughly $400,000,000 worth of new, affordable housing had been created from an initial $8,000,000 revolving loan fund.

Changing Lives through Housing

The introduction of affordable housing had an incredibly positive impact on the Brooklyn community and its residents. The opening paragraph of a February 9, 1987 Time magazine article described Nehemiah’s impact for one family who had moved into a new Nehemiah home:

Had anyone told Cornelia Jones that she would one day own a house, let alone on Junius Street in Brooklyn’s notorious Brownsville district, she would have laughed. The average price for decent housing in adjoining neighborhoods is $80,000, far above what her husband Melvin, a package loader with United Parcel Service, could swing on a salary of just under $30,000. Moreover, Junius Street was a wasteland of vandalized buildings and rubble-strewn vacant lots, not even a place “that I wanted my car to break down in,” says Jones, 48. Yet in August 1984 the Joneses and their two children moved from a nearby public-housing project into a spanking-new two-bedroom house, complete with front and back yards. The house, part of a new development of more than 1,000 two-story residences, “is all I want in a home,” says Cornelia Jones. Its address: 500 Junius Street. Its cost to the Joneses: just $39,000. The Joneses’ entree into home ownership and the rebirth of Junius Street are the work of the Nehemiah Project, the largest of the community-based private housing groups that are springing up around the country to answer the enormous need for low-cost shelter [sic].

Over ten years later, a local newspaper in the Brooklyn community, the Daily News, mirrored Time’s sentiments by noting Nehemiah’s place as the driving force behind cleaning up many of the blighted Brooklyn neighborhoods: “‘If not for the Nehemiah Houses’ has become a refrain of hopes fulfilled in the past 15 years for many public housing tenants in the South Bronx and in Brownsville and East New York, Brooklyn.” In the same article, a Brooklyn resident, who had moved into one of the Nehemiah homes, described the experience of owning a home of his own as empowering: “It’s like getting a stake in your neighborhood, in your country, a stake in everything you believe in and it gives you hope. It makes you feel less negative about what can be done.”

Building on the Nehemiah Model

The 1980s and 1990s were a time of increased LCMS activity in the affordable housing scene in the United States. Inspired by the success of the Brooklyn Nehemiah program, the LCMS expanded its housing operations on a national scale by enacting new housing programs that built on the Nehemiah model. These programs were supplemented by the national church body through the Board for Human Care’s creation of the Manager of Housing Ministries’ position and two Synodical convention resolutions.

The expansion of housing ministry within the LCMS Board for Human Care was accompanied by an expansion of LCMS housing activities across the country. In 1993, an organization named Interfaith Action Communities, which had one LCMS affiliate congregation, planned to build 2,500 Nehemiah homes in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The synod provided $250,000 for the effort. That same year, Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest began work on a project that would add around 150 units of “low and moderate income” housing in Phoenix, Arizona. In late 1994, plans were created for the “first national Inter-Lutheran Housing Ministries Convocation,” a joint convention held by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the LCMS. That convention was carried out in September, 1995 in Memphis, Tennessee. By the fall of 1996, according to the quarterly Housing Information for Ministry, over four years, “five projects [had] been approved [for loan funding from the revolving housing fund], including a new $1 million loan to build 1,300 homes in Brooklyn Nehemiah II.”

Also during the 1990s, there were multiple attempts by various non-profit agencies, as well as some LCMS districts, to recreate the Nehemiah program in other cities across the country. An interfaith agency in Memphis, Tennessee, the Shelby County Interfaith group, created plans in 1993 to build 2,000 units of affordable housing in Memphis by 2000 under a “Memphis Nehemiah” titled program. In 1998, LCMS pastor John Brasil created a moderate-income housing program under the name “OKShare” which built a similar type of housing in Chicago. This preliminary housing work helped lead the Northern Illinois District, in 1999, to request a $1,000,000 loan from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund to create a Nehemiah program in Chicago.

The synod supplemented these district and congregational efforts with two convention resolutions in the 1990s. Both resolutions were entitled “To Expand Housing Ministry.” The first one, Overture 6-24, passed in 1995, formed the formal basis for a housing ministry position inside of the LCMS. The second overture, 6-25, passed in 1998, recommended that the synod pursue closer work in housing, especially through partners like Habitat for Humanity. Both resolutions reinforced what had already been a rich thirty year history of housing resolutions passed by various LCMS conventions, beginning with Resolution 9-08 in the 1967 Convention that created the “Keys for Christ” program.

Creating the LCMS National Housing Support Corporation

During 2003, talks went on between various LCMS professionals about the possibility of creating a new corporation to support the local community housing programs of LCMS congregations and districts. While the previous LCMS WR/HC housing management position provided some form of this help, it lacked a number of distinct advantages that a new corporation would provide. The new corporation’s duties and mission would be much broader than the original housing management position in that they would expand technical assistance and also directly solicit and distribute funding for particular programs.

The planning for this new corporation led to a November, 2003 Board for Human Care Ministries meeting where the board approved the proposal to create the “LCMS National Housing Support Corporation.” The board cited, as support for this new corporation, the LCMS’ involvement in the New York and Memphis Nehemiah plans. It also noted in its decision that the corporation would be advantageous in obtaining external funds and developing partnerships for housing that were not available to LCMS World Relief and Human Care.

In its 2004 Convention, the LCMS stated in Resolution 6-02 that the “[d]evelopment of capacity and capital for the many housing programs of Districts and congregations” was a way that LCMS Lutherans could serve their communities. Shortly after the 2004 Convention, on a national and international level, LCMS World Relief and Human Care looked at new housing problems in the wake of two devastating natural disasters: the Indonesian Tsunami in late 2004 and Hurricane Katrina, which occurred in late 2005. Both events created large numbers of homeless people as they destroyed entire communities.

To the Present

The National Housing Support Corporation officially started business in the 2006-2007 fiscal year. The corporation’s primary goal was to support “local, faith-based housing initiatives [that] help stabilize communities and strengthen churches by providing decent, affordable home ownership for low-to moderate-income working families.” In the following fiscal year, with private donations, support from LCMS World Relief and Human Care, and funding from Nehemiah repayments, the NHSC finished the year off with estimated receipts totaling in excess of $1,000,000 – funds that were used to support housing projects across the country. In its first year of operation, the NHSC offered hundreds of hours in technical assistance to numerous LCMS programs in Florida, Maryland, New York, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas. It also took a leading role in meeting the housing problems caused by the Indonesian tsunami and Katrina. In all of these instances, the work continues to the present day, and is supplemented by many new projects created by LCMS congregations and RSOs.

Today, the NHSC seeks and secures funding from government, private, and corporate sources to assist LCMS congregations, districts, registered service organizations (RSOs) and other partners to develop housing ministries in their neighborhoods. NHSC acts as an intermediary for securing and administering funds and complying with conditions imposed by the various funding entities. NHSC has grown to provide a variety of services to various LCMS entities and their partners across the country.

NHSC’s current organizational objectives include:

  • Providing financial and technical support for community improvement initiatives in neighborhoods that are close to LCMS altars.
  • Networking with, training, and supporting community, faith based entities and their partners engaged in community-based projects to successfully seek and secure private and public financial investments into their redevelopment and revitalization activities.
  • Developing models for successful faith-based neighborhood revitalization in blighted and economically challenged communities.
  • Providing financial and technical support designed to strengthen the capacity and sustainability of organizations engaged in housing and neighborhood revitalization activities in economically challenged communities.
  • Establishing locally based, sustainable, and financially stable collaboration vehicles that will help identify, nurture, support, and promote promising, successful, and reproducible new and innovative approaches, programs, and projects that improve economic conditions, ensure the widest possible availability of safe, decent and affordable housing, and provide services designed to revitalize communities and help prevent future deterioration.