Light shines in darkness at Grace Lutheran Church

THE LIGHT shines in the darkness at Grace Lutheran Church in Nunda since new lights were installed. The Rev. Phillip Hofinga said the effort shows the people value hearing the Word of God proclaimed.

Jesus was, according to tradition, a carpenter until, with his baptism, his identity was revealed and he embarked upon the ministry for which he was born. Millennia later, people continue to gather to hear the good news he proclaimed, investing both time and money in caring for the places in which they worship.

"If you care about the proclamation of the gospels, then you will care about the upkeep of the place where you meet," explained the Rev. Phillip Hofinga, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Nunda.

Recently, members of his congregation demonstrated their commitment to the church, which was dedicated in 1971, by installing new light fixtures in the sanctuary, replicating the original fixtures. The work was done by Monte Albertson of Monte's Woodshop in Sioux Falls.

"That's the church I was baptized, confirmed and married in," he said. "I'm a Nunda boy originally."

Albertson became involved in the project when Jon Klassy of Klassy Electric approached him to see if he could replicate the lights installed when the building was constructed.

"The church didn't have enough lights from the beginning," Albertson said.

In December 2016, the problem was exacerbated when the textured glass windows lining the side walls were replaced with stained glass windows depicting the life of Christ and some of the more familiar gospel stories.

"When we put the stained glass in, it darkened the church on Sunday morning," Hofinga noted.

Klassy was troubled by this.

"Several times in the intervening years, he asked, `I wonder if we can replicate those lights'," Hofinga recalled.

A little over a year ago, he took down one of the lights and showed it to Albertson, who has a three-person shop in Sioux Falls and has been doing woodworking since he was 12. Klassy told Albertson that it was difficult to see with the dim lighting.

That began an effort which took time as problems were solved and COVID-19 slowed down efforts.

Grace Lutheran Church, which is affiliated with the American Association of Lutheran Churches, was started in 1920. Over the years, it has maintained a presence in a town which currently has a population of 48, in part by merging with other churches. Four congregations -- including Prairie Queen Lutheran Church, Lake Park Lutheran Church and Bethel Lutheran Church of Rutland -- were blended into one.

"We continue to be a confessional Lutheran church," Hofinga said, noting there are currently four in Lake County.

He is hesitant to indicate membership because the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Sunday attendance. However, Hofinga estimated that between 65 and 70 worship on a regular basis. In response to the pandemic, the service is streamed live on Facebook.

"The people that need to be here can come; the people that need to stay home can stay home," he said.

On Sunday, those who attended worship discovered that the lighting problem which had plagued the church from the beginning -- and had become worse when the natural light was reduced by the stained glass windows -- had been addressed. Suspended from the ceiling they saw a dozen lights indistinguishable from each other.

"My brother sat behind Jon and said, `I can't tell which ones are the new ones'," Albertson reported. His brother Roger continues to be a member of the church.

The easiest part of the project was replicating the side panels. Albertson used a laser cutter for this on straight-grain rift sawn oak.

"I made a template from one," he explained. "There's no way they used a laser at that time."

Then came the challenge of assembling the six-sided lights and matching the colored plastic inserts. Because the plastic is no longer made, stained glass was substituted, but even that was a challenge because one of the colors has been discontinued.

To replace the plastic in the six original light fixtures and to put glass in six new fixtures, Monte's Woodshop had to get some of the glass from out of state to augment what was available at Dakota Stained Glass and Supplies in Sioux Falls. That wasn't the only color challenge they faced.

With time, the stained oak light fixtures had darkened with age. To address that problem, Albertson turned to his employee Al Dibbert, who also assembled the fixtures after the pieces were cut.

"His expertise is matching colors. On new wood, we had to compensate," Albertson explained.

Initially, Klassy and his wife had indicated they would pay for the new light fixtures, which Klassy later installed. However, Albertson wasn't comfortable with that.

"I thought, `That's crazy'," he said. Albertson posted photos on his Facebook page showing the church lights and offering ornaments made from the crosses cut out of the wood panels.

"I want to find a way to fund these through donations," he wrote. "Let me know if you are interested. Any form of payment will work. I made ornaments from the crosses that were laser cut from the oak panels. I have enough to give to 36 donors."

Each of the ornaments was engraved with a passage of Scripture, Matthew 5:16, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus encouraged his followers to let their light shine so their good works would give glory to God.

"It was crazy how many people started chipping in," Albertson said. He even received donations from out of state.

In the end, the project costs were covered. Materials and employee labor came to around $3,800. While Klassy did make a contribution as well, the majority of the cost was covered by donations in response to that Facebook post.

A final delay came when Klassy had surgery about the time the lights were ready for installation. For a time, he couldn't lift more than 10 pounds. However, as soon as he was able, he climbed the tall ladders and finally addressed the lighting issue which had concerned him.

On Sunday, the lights overhead in Grace Lutheran Church were a reminder of the opening verses of John's gospel and served as a reminder of the reason believers gather to worship.

"The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" (1:5).