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Some 30 miles outside of the Twin Cities, the Mighty Mississippi stops flowing south for a while. Instead it rolls east to kiss the mouth of the St. Croix River and eventually swallows it whole. A lumbering blacktop that shadowboxes with the river from its headwaters at Lake Itasca all the way to Mississippi, Highway 61 arches over the waters here on a robin's-egg-blue bridge and rolls through the heart of a town called Hastings.
Below the bridge is Second Street, a main drag with antique stores and taverns along the waterfront that has been restored to look as it did in the 1880s. Remnants of stone warehouses and mills still line the riverfront, and Victorian mansions still dot the rising bluffs south of the river. Outside of the historic district, the town looks a lot like any other Midwestern bedroom community: A Holiday station, a Walgreen's, and a Burger King line the roadside just a mile south of the bridge.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, Native Americans found the natural port here--a placid bend in the Mississippi--to be ideal for fishing, and they christened the area "Owobopte," meaning "the place where the turnips grow." After a pair of hasty treaties in 1851 opened the land west of the river to white settlers, a town boomed. Back then the Mississippi was too shallow for large boat traffic to go any farther north, so fur traders and lumbermen made Hastings their last stop.
Inevitably, men of the cloth were quick to arrive, eager to reach not only the millers and explorers but the Native Americans as well. In 1856, a Lutheran minister dispatched to Minnesota in search of German immigrants and American Indians traveled some 700 miles around the state before finding a wealth of potential parishioners near the river and in the general area now known as Hastings.
Over the years, thanks to some railroads running near the city, the region saw steady development. Today a town of 18,000 people, Hastings is home to nearly 30 churches. First Presbyterian, United Pentecostal, First Baptist, St. Luke's Episcopal, and plenty more line Highway 61--which briefly becomes a main strip known as Vermillion Street--and the quaint streets that branch off from it.
A couple of miles west of the river and historic district, on the edge of a burgeoning subdivision, sits one of Hastings's newest churches, a small, low-slung structure that was built in 1986. It's a plain, tan building with a large glass foyer that sits atop a rolling hill. Until recently this was the home of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, the only church in town that belongs to a conservative Lutheran sect known as the Missouri Synod.
Technically, Shepherd of the Valley hasn't met here since November 1998. Not since the congregation fell to fighting over whether to fire its pastor, Bruce King. At the height of the battle, one of the church's lay officials literally changed the locks on the fire-and-brimstone minister. Supposedly the rift was caused by disagreement over just who is a good enough Lutheran to receive communion. But plenty of folks hereabouts insist that the real problem is that people felt the old-school pastor cared more about doctrine than he did about the earthly souls entrusted to his care.
These days King and the 50 or so members of the congregation who remained faithful to him worship on the other side of town in a Country Inn & Suites hotel at the junction of highways 61 and 316. At exactly the same time every Sunday morning, the rest of his erstwhile flock can be found holding services in the little church on the hill, now renamed Hope Lutheran Church.
Both sides have become tight-lipped and hurt by the battle, which feels like a bad sibling feud, with differences finally coming to a head the night King and his faction left the church. Soon after, the future of the building at 1450 W. Fourth St. was put in the hands of the lay authorities of Minnesota's legal system. Since then, there's been a silence as loud as thunder.
Shepherd of the Valley used to be so neighborly, friends on both sides of the dispute recall. The congregants often felt like an extended family. "We were a very united church," recalls parishioner Tim Rusch. "But now we are all deeply divided, and there are no winners or losers."
As in most towns of any size, there were several Lutheran churches in Hastings 20 years ago. But none was affiliated with the Missouri Synod, one of the most conservative branches of the Lutheran church. Some members had been driving as far as Rosemount, or even up to St. Paul, to worship. And as their numbers grew, a dedicated group started working on bringing a church of their own to Hastings.
In 1985, with 50 charter members, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church was founded. With a $250,000 loan from the Missouri Synod, the founders went right to work on creating a place where they could worship. Many pitched in to build the church with their own bare hands, toiling away in their spare time. "We had this group called Laborers for Christ that goes around and builds Missouri Synod churches," the church's first treasurer, Al Johnson, would later recall. "By the end of the day, my muscles were so tense and tight. I couldn't even hammer anymore because I was so tense from standing on that roof."