Emanuel Lutheran Church was founded in 1878 by German immigrants living in New Brunswick and the surrounding area. The church building has always been on the site it presently occupies in the very center of downtown New Brunswick, where it is today surrounded by Rutgers University, several theaters, civic buildings, and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. In its more than 130 year history, Emanuel's ministry has always been shaped by its location in the city. In the first half of its history, Emanuel's members mostly lived in New Brunswick and were part of the parish. Today, members of Emanuel come from many different communities in order to be part of a church in the city and create a ministry that is responsive to the needs of people as those needs are apparent in modern American cities.
In the course of its history, Emanuel has tended to have long tenures for its pastors and has had only seven different pastors. The worship service was originally in the German language, reflecting the heritage of the congregation, but gradually English services were conducted as well. Services today are exclusively in English, and comparatively few of Emanuel's 420 members are of German heritage. Rather, they are from many ethnic and racial backgrounds, and many denominational backgrounds as well, coming together to share in the work of Christian ministry.
In the past two decades, Emanuel's ministry has consisted of many initiatives in the surrounding community, in addition to members taking care of one another. Emanuel was instrumental in founding the agency known as Elijah's Promise, which is a widely recognized soup kitchen serving more than 100,000 meals per year, a culinary school, a catering business, and social services, all dedicated to assisting the poorest and most vulnerable people in the area. Middlesex Interfaith Partners with the Homeless was also founded at Emanuel. This agency has built transitional housing for homeless families and people living with AIDS and young women aging out of foster care. Emanuel has its own community development corporation which has worked in the area of financial literacy for low-income people. Emanuel is home to the Open Door, a drug treatment program, and is the site of many community groups meeting for the well-being of their participants. Emanuel has operated a food pantry for almost two decades. This pantry has recently been expanded to meet then needs of more people in the city.
At the same time that Emanuel has been involved in these varied ministries in the wider New Brunswick community, it is a church where members of all ages are nurtured with worship and Christian education and pastoral services. Emanuel has a Sunday School and a youth program, choirs, social gatherings, and many other activities. There is no question that Emanuel's place in the center of the city determines the character of its community, but it is also a community that is very much of its people, by its people, and for its people.
In keeping with the spirit of Luther, Emanuel is a congregation that has heeded the call of conscience in response to the gospel of Christ. As such, Emanuel has frequently stepped forward on issues having to do with both church and society. Emanuel has led the way in promoting inclusive language in worship, weekly communion for people of all ages, and, most significantly, for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian members in the life of the church. Emanuel was the first Reconciling in Christ Church (a church that publicly embraces the cause of inclusion) in the New Jersey Synod and was a leader in the Synod in this cause. Emanuel is also a model for a mission-oriented church in its outreach and its witness. There is some satisfaction to be taken in the fact that the ELCA has on many of these fronts and others followed where Emanuel has led the way.