Omaha's Augustana Lutheran Church dates back to 1868, when a group of twenty recent immigrants from Sweden began an informal congregation in a rented hall downtown. The congregation acquired its own church in 1882 at the corner of 19th and Cass. The congregation grew owing to a merger in 1936 that saw members of the former Zion Lutheran Church to join Augustana. In 1951, the congregation built this church and sanctuary.
In 1965, the all-white Augustana
Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska welcomed Reverend William Youngdahl.
Youngdahl, previously coming from an integrated church, came with the idea of
black and white integration starting with the church. In the reverend’s eyes,
the acknowledgment and the desire to put an end to racism and racial issues in
society, starts with religion and the people of the church who believe in it.
In the Academy Award nominated documentary, A
Time for Burning, created in 1966, documentarians captured the agonies
Reverend Youngahl experienced in Omaha, Nebraska. He faced challenges as he came in close contact
with African-American activist, and later Nebraska’s longest running state
senator, Ernie Chambers, Augustana’s Elder Ray Christiansen, the black and
white communities and the parishioners of Omaha, Nebraska.
In the mid 1960’s,
America was struggling with the causes and effects of its racial prejudices
that its past with which the world had become accustom. The all-white segregated Augustana
Lutheran church was doing the same. While William Youngdahl was making an attempt
to integrate his church, the members were against this new concept. These white
men, women and youth were extremely adamant about their church staying all
white, but were very passive in explaining their reasoning; let alone
acknowledging that their reasons were about race. The reverend came with a new
approach to get blacks and whites to build positive relationships within
Augustana Lutheran, as well as in different settings. In order to do this,
Youngdahl explains to his church members that he wanted ten pairs of his white
church members to build integrated social relationships with church members of
a neighboring black church, Hope Lutheran.
In the first step in reaching this
goal, he invited African-American high school students of Calvin Memorial to
attend a Sunday service, which was a risk in losing his congregation. As a
result of this, Youngdahl was confronted by parishioners about how they did not
feel comfortable and were opposed to this form of integration. The members claimed
that the timing was not right and this idea of integration should be dealt with
in a more subtle manner. As seen in A Time
for Burning, looking for influence and other opinions, Youngdahl goes to a
local African-American barbershop where he speaks with Ernie Chambers.
Chambers, being extremely vocal and educated on the subject of race and the
oppression of African-Americans in America, explains to the reverend his views
of the people of Augustana Lutheran. They have conversations about Christianity
as a religion and how the beliefs and values of the white members in his church
are not of Christ and do not portray equality. A Time for Burning catches Chambers and members of Hope Lutheran
discussing what being a Christian entails; as they do not see being passive
about and accepting institutionalized racism in the church, as the true meaning
Concluding this critically
acclaimed documentary, the Augustana Lutheran church was uncooperative with
Reverend William Youngdahl’s attempts to create an integrated environment
within the church. The congregation saw this as being a forced integration and
felt as if the word of God was no longer the focus, but the issues and injustices
of race was. Because of this, he resigned from his position as reverend, leaving
the problems of black and white race relations within the church unsolved.
During Youngdahl’s efforts, he reiterates that the church should be a place
that portrays equality in all aspects. In the 1960’s, America became a place of
ongoing prejudices and racial inequalities. Although A Time for Burning captures Omaha, Nebraska’s Augustana Lutheran
reverend making an attempt at equality, there was much more to come concerning the
need of positive race relations and the desire for equality.