In 2013, Lutheran Church of the Reformation (212 East Capitol St. NE) Pastor Micheal Wilker was preparing for the memorial service for Arnold Keller Jr., his predecessor who served the church and community for 26 years.
As he thought about Keller’s ministry, he pushed open the great big doors on the front of the church. The day’s sunlight struck him. Folks were biking past or pushing strollers; others were dressed in suits and were on their way to the Library of Congress or the Capitol.
“They were just everyday workers and walkers,” Wilker recalled. “I suddenly realized that one way to think about Reformations’ ministry is that we open the doors of God’s love to the neighborhoods and to the nations. That is just a long-standing value of this congregation.”
Wilker, known in the neighborhood as Pastor Mike, walked out those doors for the last time as pastor on Dec. 26, leaving the District Jan. 9 for a new post with First Lutheran Church in Deocorah, Iowa.
In his ten years at Reformation, he has carried on the open door tradition. “He has really been a voice for social justice in the community,” said Del Voss, a member of the Reformation congregation since 1995, “and that’s very important for members of the congregation. He’s made sure every person is welcome to participate fully in the ministry and life of the church.”
“We love him very much, and we’re very sad to see him go,” said Voss. “He’s a very beloved minister.”
Reformation has worked with other congregations for the past decade to shape the neighborhood, agitating for affordable housing as part of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN); welcoming new residents as part of Good Neighbors Capitol Hill; and continuing a tradition of being a safe haven for Americans of all stripes and from all over the nation who come to the Capitol to exercise their democratic rights.
In addition to all this, Wilker has presided over the church, located a block from the Capitol Building, during a tumultuous time. He’s offered the prayer to open sessions of Congress and been quoted on political events. But, he says, it is the lives he has been blessed to touch that he will really miss.
Called to Ministry
Michael Wilker was born on a hog form in Northern Minnesota, graduating from St. Olaf’s College before going on to volunteer with service organization Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC) in Chicago. It was when he moved to DC to take a leadership position with LVC in the 1980s that he met his now-wife, Judy. She helped him hear the call to pastoral leadership.
In 1990 they moved to California, where Wilker attended Lutheran Theological Seminary while Judy completed a Master’s in teaching. From there, Wilker, who is also fluent in Spanish, moved on to a church in the South Bronx, then to a Latino congregation in Watsonville, CA before returning to New York.
In 2005, Wilker and his family, now including two children, moved back to the District to take a position as Executive Director of LVC.
“But I missed the parish ministry aspect of being with a congregation, a multi-generational group of people over the long course of their lives,” Wilker said. Luckily, Wilker was ready to return to congregational ministry at the same time as Reformation began searching for a Senior Pastor. It was, as he said, a perfect match.
Histories of Service
Reformation has a long history of service that predated Wilker, including providing a base for activism, such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice in 1963, the Tractorcade of the American Agriculture Movement in 1979, Dreamer civil disobedience in 2012, and the LGBTQ Marriage Equality Interfaith Service in 2015.
“I hope I had some gifts and experiences,” Wilker said, “but I also believe that this congregation shaped me to be the pastor that I became and the leader that I became.”
Like Wilker, Anne Ford is a leader of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN). “Everyone knows Rev. Wilker, and he’s always got his hand out to help someone,” she said, “not just on the Hill, but throughout the District.”
Ford is a member of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church (1357 E. Capitol St. SE), just down the street from Reformation. She met Wilker when he came to a neighborhood walk she was leading, hungry to learn more about WIN and about Capitol Hill, knocking on doors with Ford and meeting neighbors. “Ever since then we’ve been partner to partner on a lot of ventures in Ward 6,” she said.
Reformation joined with St. Cyprian and 30 to 40 other District congregations in WIN to engage with the families that were then living at the DC General shelter, helping create the emergency family shelters that are now either open or being built in every ward. They push for affordable housing throughout the District, notably as plans were being made for Reservation 13.
In 2016, as news of the Syrian refugee crisis broke, Reformation began to look at ways to help them. Wilker drew on his history of work with immigrant communities to provide the foundation. Good Neighbors Capitol Hill (GNCH) is now a coalition of more than ten congregations that has helped resettle at least 75 Syrian and Afghan families over the last five years. “I only was a catalyst and connector for that,” said Wilker. “That work was done by the people of these congregations.”
Opening Doors to Love
The Lutheran church shares a roof with Jewish congregation Hill Havurah. Hill Havurah was once distributed in buildings miles apart, Rabbi Hannah Spiro said. Being at Reformation not only merges Hill Havurah; the two congregations have become a shared community under one roof. Wilker is a mentor and a friend, Spiro said, who comes to speak to Hill Havurah at the beginning of High Holidays and gives her gifts of honey and candles to mark the occasion.
She remembers the heady days of January, 2017. On Jan. 20, Reformation opened its doors to those attending the Trump inauguration; the next day, the church was filled by attendees of the Women’s March. Wilker and a crew of volunteers were there both days, offering each group warmth, coffee and washrooms while engaging people in conversation. Spiro said it was a learning experience, and says she is grateful to have been a part of it. “I feel like that’s one really beautiful example of who pastor Mike is and the kind of work he’s been able to do a block from the Capitol,” she said, “and that I’m able to do now.”
But for all those accomplishments and activity, Wilker said what he will most remember is the people. The children that he has seen grow up, babies into middle-schoolers; highschoolers into parents; the baptism of babies and of adults guided to God’s love, and the lives he could serve as they drew to a close.
“I know in a mysterious way, to be able to serve those people in those critical moments was also a blessing to us,” Wilker said. “So I’m thinking about beginnings and endings a lot here.”
Wilker said he has so much gratitude for the residents and leaders of Capitol Hill neighborhood organizations and congregations. He is sad to be saying goodbye to “a community that knows its beloved and wants everyone in DC and beyond to have that experience of belovedness.” But he has faith in the ongoing work and love of the people of the church and community he has called home for the past decade.
“Reformation is a dynamic, multi-generational, joyful community that shares its gifts to care for one another and the world,” Wilker said. “And I just know that’s going to continue.”