Pastor Allie preaches on Sunday at First Lutheran/Olena Sadovnik
A marine biology student, Allie Leitzel, had been planning to continue her graduate studies in biochemistry of nutrition. But that had never happened as Leitzel’s engagement into campus spiritual life and her childhood experience of growing in a Lutheran church redirected her. Now an established pastor, Leitzel finds herself watching over a church in a neighborhood known for its high student population.
By the time our orders at the Green Leaf Cafe were ready, it seemed like everybody in the Cafe had personally greeted Allie Leitzel, a new pastor from the nearby First Lutheran Church at 181 Western Ave., Albany, NY. Watching her lively interaction with the staff made me curious, how does she know them? It turned out that despite being recent in the area, shortly after Leitzel arrived, she made a point to see nearby entrepreneurs. “I think it is very important to support local businesses. For example, at this place we usually order something for our community dinners,” Leitzel elaborated. She sees reaching out to the community as the Church’s priority.
“The fact that Pastor remembered my name, made me feel very important”
Jessica Porcelli, left, and Giorga Rauso, right, working hard at the clean-up, organized by the Lutheran Church
Leitzel is an energetic and engaging pastor, who is attentive to people. Pine Hills’ resident, GiorgaRauso, an exchange student from Italy at SUNY Albany, recalled that the first time she met “Pastor Allie” she was quite impressed, as Leitzel was the first female pastor she has ever met. “It was very unusual for me, because after the service Pastor Allie gave me her hand and asked my name. It was very welcoming,” Rauso told. “I went to the Church for the second time and the fact that the pastor remembered my name, made me feel very important. I felt like joining the congregation for the neighborhood’s clean up in the afternoon,” she added.
The neighborhood changed dramatically since the church was first here in 1929. Many people from the congregation no longer live here; it’s predominantly a student area. Carol Engelhardt, former Pine Hills’ resident, who has been with the Lutheran for over 20 years, told during the recent community dinner held September 30, that Leitzel is well received by the congregation. “Pastor Allie is very concerned for people, about their needs. She initiated these monthly dinners to meet people, who now live in this area,” Engelhardt noted.
Leitzel is trying to help the congregation to get to know their neighbors and begin to reach out and find out that there are really not a lot of reasons to be scared of this evolving area. “If you are an older person who has troubles walking, to be around young dynamic people must make you afraid you could break a hip or something,” Leitzel explained.
Anybody from any faith or no faith is welcome to free community dinners. Next dinner is on October,28.
First Lutheran and neighbors are getting together at community dinner/Olena Sadovnik
To reach out to new neighbors First Lutheran started to host free community dinners, followed by movie screenings every month since May. This turned out to be a good kickoff. Richard McElreath, choir member at the church since 2005, shared that “Every time we’ve had done it, it has been successful.” The attendance ranges between 40 and 100 guests, plus people form the church. “It’s something we are going continue to do.” McElreath noted that he likes a lot what the Church is becoming. “Our new pastor is actually doing a very good job. She is a very hands-on pastor. We are blessed to have her,” he added.
The next community event will be October, 28. Leitzel emphasized that it is not like they are trying to make everybody become a Lutheran. “Anybody from any faith or no faith is welcome. It’s a chance to make us closer to each other,” she summed up. During these neighborhood events the congregation has also reached reaches out to its newest neighbors.
Since May, Leitzel with a church member Janice Logan started volunteering with the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, after discovering that a family of refugees from Burma moved in right across the street from the Church. “Janice and I both try to spend 2-3 hours with the family each week, usually an hour or more on each of two days. Helping them with English and tasks of daily life,” Leitzel stated. She also added that right now, they are spending a lot of time helping newcomers to do paper work and respond to letters and information from the schools. The family has four kids still in school.
“Lutheran church is a thinking person’s church, they don’t tell you all the answers.”
Fascinating by the story about angel/Olena Sadovnik
While conducting the service, Leitzel pays special attention to children. Usually she asks the youngest to join her up front near the altar, where she sits next to them on the floor. There is always a little story or a riddle for them. Sunday, September, 28, she brought a costume of an angel to better explain to the children about Archangel Gabriel. Interestingly, Leitzel herself got acquainted with the Lutheran church during her childhood Leitzel grew up in Elizabethville, a small town in south central Pennsylvania. Her parents chose Lutheran for her. “Considering all churches in town, what my dad said was that Lutheran church is a thinking process church, they don’t tell you all the answers. They expect you to use your mind and struggle with things, come up with some ideas for yourself,” Leitzel said. Such concepts had appealed to Leitzel, who since has been an active Lutheran.
After graduation from the high school, she headed to University of Miami to become a marine biologist. Leitzel had been planning to continue her grad studies in biochemistry of nutrition. But that had never happened as Leitzel’s extensive engagement into campus spiritual life and her childhood experience of growing in a Lutheran church redirected her. Campus ministry introduced her to the wider church. For Leitzel, meeting students from different campuses at re-treats and on other occasions, had provoked many thoughts and queries. At one point during her senior year she called up her father and said: “Dad, I think I need to take a semester off my studies, because my heart is not in. My heart was at the campus ministry program.” Leitzel chuckled, saying that she never took that semester off, because her dad insisted that she finishes her studies, as tuitions go up. Shortly after graduation, Leitzel received a job at the campus ministry. It became a major turning point in her life.
First Lutheran Church on 181 Western Ave/Olena Sadovnik
In 1987 Leitzel was ordained at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Ontario, Canada. In the last 25 years she served as a pastor in three different churches in Western NY, most recently for 13 years in Jamestown in Chautaqua County. Because two congregations were merging, she agreed to look for a new call. “So, when I checked the First Lutheran’s web site, I saw the congregation that was welcoming everyone, including LGBT community. I said that these are things about the church that attract me, let me check it out,” Leitzel told.
In Evangelical Lutheran Church of America regional synod, in this case Upstate New York Synod recommends candidates to be considered for call by the congregation. But the final decision belongs to the church’s members. What happens is that the governing body of the church, the Council, appoints a search committee, which considers the Bishop’s candidates and decides whether to recommend him or her to the congregation. “The first candidate was rejected by the committee. Leitzel was the second candidate recommended,” Steve Carlson, president of First Lutheran’s congregation, explained. They went to hear her preaching at another church. Then Leitzel was invited to conduct a test service at First Lutheran. Following the service, the congregation voted almost unanimously, 97% to 3%, according to Carlson.
Challenges of being a woman pastor
When asked about the challenges of being a woman pastor, Leitzel was apprehensive and did not want to focus attention on her. However, she explained that there are still congregations that cannot conceive of calling a woman pastor, even though it was in 1970 when the church started accepting women as pastors. Bishops are committed to women as pastors, but they don’t have the authority to say ‘you have to take this pastor’. This is one of those things the congregation has to decide. The First Lutheran said yes to Pastor Leitzel.
“Find trusted people you can talk with”
Allie Leitzel believes that college years are a time when there are so many options for students. She encourages students to find trusted people they can talk with. People you can share your questions, whether it’s career and work, vocation, faith or anything like that. “Find people that welcome your questions, and will sit and listen and talk with you. And not just say this is what you have to fit. In the meantime, you have to find somewhere to earn your living. So, you got to balance,” Leitzel added.
“I like working here”
Pastor Leitzel is excited about the future. “I am here, I moved here. I like working here. If it continues to work out, I may be here at First Lutheran until I retire,” she disclosed. Allie Leitzel is married to Chaplain Barry Davis. She has three grown up children Alanna, 27, in grad school in Minnesota, Zachary, 25, working in NYC and Kaiya, 23, working in Minneapolis. He has one, Lacy, 23, working and studying in Pittsburgh. Leitzel’s husband teaches history at McDowell Intermediate High School in Erie, PA. “He is going to retire probably in the end of the school year and I hope he will move out and live with me. It what would be nice,” she said. But Pastor Leitzel has some years before retirement, so primarily she wants see how First Lutheran and her can continue to evolve in a ministry, a mission, and hopefully, get the church more deeply rooted in the neighborhood. “That’s kind of who I am.”