In the early days of his career, my father, Robert Bergeson (AKA Pastor Bob), was the spiritual leader of the teenagers in his congregation at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota. He was the junior pastor in a two-person team and a much younger man than the senior pastor. He was only four years out of the seminary when he got the job in 1956 at the age of 31.
Many of the activities of his tenure with the youth of the church were simply extensions of the parish education program: Bible studies, social events, involvement in worship services, etc. The really fun stuff, however, happened in the summer.
Some form of a summer national event for lutheran youth has taken place for nearly 100 years. Beginning in 1957, the current format of the event (known as the Lutheran Youth Gathering) occurs every three years. As part of his duties, Pastor Bob took his Luther Leaguers to three of these pilgrimages. As I have recently learned, one of them had repercussions of national significance.
The first Gathering was in Missoula, MT in August of 1957. Pastor Bob took a busload of his charges on a road trip that included stops in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone on the way home from the convention. My Dad left no notes about this trip, but a Google search brought forth a silent film showing some of the events of the week in Missoula.
Church groups arrived by bus and by train. Many folks wore cowboy hats and there was a lengthy parade of convention goers through the city. Pastor Bob took a couple rolls of slides, the most interesting of which were those taken at a Hutterite community in Cutbank, Montana. The Hutterites are a Christian sect that originated in 16th-century eastern Europe believing in adult baptism and communal living. The Glacier Hutterite Colony was created in 1951, but the Hutterite emigration from Russia to the United States occurred in 1870. I wonder what questions the Northfield teenagers had for Pastor Bob about this stop.
The next Lutheran Youth Gathering was in Miami, Florida August 15-20, 1961. This was a much larger event and the program was quite impressive.
The Northfield youth contingent traveled both by bus and private cars and the journey took much longer than the trip to Missoula. Outbound to Miami they made stops in Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta and Clearwater, Florida. On the return trip they stopped in Daytona Beach, Charleston, South Carolina, Washington D.C. and South Bend, Indiana. When they visited the U.S. Capitol in Washington, they had an audience with Al Quie, the member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota’s First Congressional District. I know I’ve seen a picture of the group with Rep. Quie on the steps of the Capitol, but I can’t find it just now.
A young Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the assembled youth for nearly an hour and received a 5-minute standing ovation. This was two years before his “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. His appearance in Miami came close to not happening, but Rev. L. David Brown, the American Lutheran Church staff person who had invited Dr. King, made an extraordinary effort to keep it on the program.
After booking Dr. King for the keynote speech, Brown received over 600 pieces of mail from members of the John Birch Society around the country criticizing the arrangement and demanding that he be taken off the program. When King learned about the controversy, he declined the invitation. Rev. Brown was so concerned about this development that he got on a plane and flew to Atlanta to speak with Dr. King.
When he arrived in Atlanta, he couldn’t find a cab driver that would take him to King’s church. They all claimed to have never heard of King and wouldn’t know where to find him. So David Brown walked to Ebenezer Baptist Church to meet with Dr. King and try to convince him to reconsider. During the process, he spoke to both King’s father and his brother about the matter, but it was Coretta King, Dr. King’s wife, who was able to change his mind so that he would go to the conference.
There is a Soundcloud recording of King’s speech if you’re interested. There’s also a collection of photographs from the convention that you can find by clicking here. The musical entertainment during the convention was from Miriam Makeba!
35 students from the Northfield area made the trip and they were accompanied by 6 adult chaperones including Pastor Bob, the head wrangler. There is an article in the Northfield News from August 17, 1961 that lists the names of the students and a few other details of the program.
I can’t help but wonder how my mother survived Pastor Bob’s absence during the two weeks that he was gone. She had three children to care for, the youngest being two years old, and she was seven months pregnant. I’d like to say that I was a big help to her, but I was just nine and I don’t actually remember any of it!
In 1964, the Lutheran Youth Gathering took place in Detroit, Michigan. I don’t remember Dad telling me anything about the highlights of the trip, but I do remember that the event took place at a convention center called Cobo Hall (now Cobo Arena). He brought home a brochure showing the features of the recently opened building. My 12-year-old self thought it looked massive and thoroughly exotic, but I see now that it’s actually fairly utilitarian in appearance.
According to an article in the Northfield News dated August 13, 1964, the group was to depart Northfield four days later on a chartered bus. There were 24 Luther Leaguers and four adult chaperones on the bus. Eleven of the teenagers were from Northfield churches: nine from St. John’s and two from Bethel. Eight kids were from Dennison, Minnesota and four were from Nerstrand. There was even one participant from Red Wing!
Walter Reuther was the keynote speaker at the convention. At the time he was the President of the United Auto Workers of America. This made perfect sense since the event was being held in the Motor City. The other keynote was given by Louis Lomax, a Black journalist and civil rights leader. The musical headliner was The Chad Mitchell Trio. Now I understand why my Dad added an LP of theirs to his collection about this time. 1964 was an election year, of course, and the album had a song titled “Barry’s Boys” that skewered Barry Goldwater. My Dad was a Johnson supporter!
You can see a collection of conference photos from the church archives by clicking here.
Honestly, I don’t know what life lessons or memories Pastor Bob took away from these experiences. What I do remember is that he had lengthy friendships with a couple of the counselors, one of whom became a parish minister himself and the other of whom became the man’s wife! It’s also true that my father was simultaneously doing coursework at the University of Minnesota to become a hospital chaplain and an educator in the field, and less than a year after his trip to Detroit, he switched careers and we moved to California.
But that’s another story!