Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Couple never met a cause they couldn't tackle

Posted by: Website Admin on 11/26/2010

Ellwangers win Zeidler award

By Tom Tolan of the Journal Sentinel

When Joe Ellwanger retired at the end of 2001 as pastor of Cross Lutheran Church, the central city congregation he'd served for 35 years, he took on a part-time job with WISDOM, the statewide church-based social justice organization.

Well, not exactly part time.

"Technically it's part time," says David Liners, WISDOM's lead organizer, "but half of Joe's time seems to be more than the full time of most people."
Ellwanger - who with his wife, Joyce, received the city's Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award this week - works to organize social justice organizations all over the state and has had a hand in creating six of them, with two more in the works.

"If Joe's on the way somewhere and he stops for gas, you'd better watch out," jokes Liners. "There will soon be a social justice organization there."

Ellwanger, 77, also coordinates WISDOM's Treatment Instead of Prison efforts, advocating for state legislation to divert offenders with drug and alcohol problems away from incarceration.

And he has another "part-time" job as an organizer for the Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope, or MICAH, of which he's a founder.

"He's larger than life," says Sharon McMurray, MICAH's office manager. "His energy, his passion - he just goes."

Or as Joyce Ellwanger puts it, "Joe's not a part-time kind of person. He doesn't count the hours."

Seeds of social action

The Ellwangers came to Milwaukee in 1967 to take over at Cross Lutheran, 1821 N. 16th St. The church, they say, was looking for ways to reach out to its neighbors in an increasingly African-American area.

They came with excellent credentials for that. He had been pastor at an all-black Lutheran parish in Birmingham, Ala., where he had worked in the civil rights movement with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Joyce had walked between hostile crowds with him in a historic march in Selma, Ala., while she was pregnant with their first child.

In their 3 1/2 decades at Cross, they watched the congregation change from about 90% white to about 80% black at the time he left, he said, and they helped it become a citywide center of social action, civil rights and service to the poor.

The organization that became today's Hunger Task Force got its start at the church, in a group that advocated for breakfasts in Milwaukee Public Schools.

So did Project Return, a program that helps 3,000 to 5,000 prison inmates each year re-integrate with society, according to its executive director, Wendel Hruska.

The church was active in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when congregations around the country defied U.S. authorities by taking in refugees from war in Central America. That helped launch a partnership that continues today between the Lutheran Church in El Salvador and the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Active in outreach

When they retired in 2001, they stayed in their north side home just two blocks from Cross, but became members of Hephatha Lutheran Church, Cross Lutheran's neighbor to the north at N. 18th and W. Locust streets.

There, says Pastor Mary Martha Kannass, the two run the adult education program on Sundays. Joe preaches sometimes and fills in for Kannass when she's gone, and he brings four prisoners from the nearby Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center to participate in class and services each Sunday.

The couple also helped start a program called Serenity Inns, a residential transitional center for men recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.

And Joyce spearheaded an effort to bring healthier foods to a nearby corner store.

"They've helped our congregation become more active and faithful," Kannass said.

Outside the parish, Joyce, 73, just returned this week from the annual protests at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) the U.S. military facility at Fort Benning in Georgia that trains Latin American civilian, police and military leaders. She and other demonstrators accuse its graduates of human rights violations. (A few years ago, she spent six months in federal prison after one of these demonstrations.)

She's a facilitator at the district attorney's office's Community Conferencing Program, a restorative justice effort that gets nonviolent offenders together with their victims and community members.

And she goes out with a group that holds vigils and prays at most homicide scenes in the city.

Meanwhile, Joe is working on a book, the working title of which is "Transforming Church" - not a memoir, he says, but a volume "laced with stories" from the couple's nearly 50 years in Birmingham and Milwaukee.

The title's significance?

"It's a double meaning," he says, "the idea being that the church - when it really is the church, living into the Gospel - transforms us; but we, as people in the body of Christ and the church, need to be engaged in transforming the church as well, because the church certainly is not perfect and needs transforming and reforming constantly."

Speakers at the awards program Tuesday, including civil rights lawyer Art Heitzer, the award committee's chairman, spoke about how the Ellwangers are similar to the award's namesake, former mayor and longtime public activist Frank Zeidler, and his wife, Agnes - in that they have a global vision but are actively involved locally. Heitzer called them "people who are in it for the long haul."

Said Kannass: "Joe and Joyce in their retirement do more than other people would do in their peak productivity."

The Ellwangers are the second recipients of the award. The first were Jack and Lucia Murtaugh in 2008.

Frank Zeidler died in 2006, Agnes in 2009.

Tags: WISDOM | Outreach |
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