Now 75, Margaret Billmeyer is a lifelong member of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, New York. She has always lived in the neighborhood, and she's seen many changes as different ethnic groups move in, most recently from the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. Billmeyer finds all this change invigorating.
But she had her doubts when St. Luke's pastor, Rev. John Graepel, and a young member of the congregation, Jon Lorenzen, suggested doing a jazz vespers service on Sunday afternoons.
According to Pastor Graepel, St. Luke's predominantly African-American membership does not respond enthusiastically to more traditional Lutheran liturgy and artistic expression (such as Bach chorales). Nor, says Graepel, "are parishioners particularly inclined toward the kind of ‘new music' that characterizes many churches today." They are, however, knowledgeable about and appreciative of jazz.
St. Luke's neighborhood is one of multiethnic artistic ferment, fed by the presence of the Pratt Institute of Art and Design. Graepel and Lorenzen, a Pratt graduate and musician, wanted to reach out to the community (students as well as more permanent residents) with the vespers service. Margaret Billmeyer wasn't even sure exactly what jazz was, and she was afraid it might not be very worshipful. But she was ready to join with more enthusiastic parishioners and give it a try.
Now she is one of the program's most ardent supporters. She and a friend go to Sunday morning services, share a leisurely lunch they bring from home, and afterwards attend the vespers. According to Billmeyer, "The music is very, very wonderful." Her favorite selections are jazz improvisations on recognizable hymns, but she likes it all.