Ruth VanDemark, our colleague on this journal and in our synod, died on June 9th of complications from breast cancer. She was deeply devoted to the ministry and mission of Let’s Talk, to foster thoughtful theological conversation in our synod and beyond. She co-edited our 2010 issue on “Environmental Theology” and was instrumental, though uncredited, in bringing a substantial and widely-read issue on “The Church’s Mission in Financial Recession” to publication last year.
She was the pastor of Wicker Park Lutheran Church in Chicago from 1999 until her death. It was a second calling for Ruth, who had been a prominent lawyer and head of the Illinois Appellate Bar Association before returning to seminary to complete her ordination requirements. Befitting her legal training and her prior study at Harvard Divinity School, Ruth had a keen eye for detail and a strong commitment to Biblical scholarship, reverent liturgy and the continued vitality and mission of the urban church.
Ruth supervised me during my year of field education at Wicker Park, during which time she nominated me to the board of Let’s Talk. I returned to the parish in 2008 as a lay associate, shortly after Ruth’s initial cancer diagnosis, and she co-presided at my ordination and installation there as associate pastor the next year. Like many city churches with big, old buildings and young, transient congregations, Wicker Park had long had a pirate-ship organizational character that could be both exhilarating and exhausting. For some reason the new fire was never prepared, much less lit, before 8:05 on Holy Saturday, and the occasional schizophrenic alcoholic had to be rousted out of residence in the church basement. Yet thanks to her tireless effort, the church’s landmark Romanesque towers were rebuilt, its vintage organ was restored, and its worshippers came to reflect the diversity and vitality of a rapidly developing neighborhood with few Christian institutions. There were baptisms, for children and adults, almost continually. There were new kinds of worship services, including one she described in our pages in 2006.
In recent years, Wicker Park has become a prominent mission field for “emerging church” plants, from Urban Village and Missio Dei to Wicker Park Grace (now Grace Commons). But Ruth was there first, pouring her heart and soul into a ministry setting and an expression of Christian faith that not a few people were ready to declare obsolete. She was a great friend and mentor to me, and more importantly, she was a devoted servant of the Gospel in Chicago and beyond. She will be very much missed, and we thank God for having worked with her all these years.