Lutheran Social Services of New York celebrates its 130th continuous year of service in 2016.
In 1886, 11 Lutheran congregations in the metropolitan New York area created the Bethlehem Orphan and Half-Orphan Asylum, to take care of children who were orphaned primarily due to a severe outbreak of influenza within the German communities of New York City. Dedicated on May 30, 1888, the asylum’s mission was to care for and educate orphans and half-orphans to be Christians and useful members of society. Thus began the Lutheran presence in what would become, over time, an organized effort to address child welfare in New York, and would result in the creation of Lutheran Social Services of New York.
The first permanent Bethlehem “Asylum” was in College Point, Queens. For more than 25 years, orphans were reared and educated in a rather strict, but loving, German institutional system. When the program outgrew the Queens home, the children moved to a spacious new building on a hillside in Staten Island overlooking what would become the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. There the home flourished and began to welcome children from a range of ethnic backgrounds. In 1944, the name was changed to Bethlehem Lutheran Children’s Home to better reflect its full American character and expanding ethnic diversity.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, many Lutheran mission societies existed to meet a wide variety of social and community needs among Lutherans immigrating to New York. As the century progressed, small-community, church-based societies formed larger organizations. These organizations were linked either to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) or to predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In 1965, a number of these organizations merged. In 1970, a final consolidation took place creating Lutheran Community Services (LCS). The newly-created LCS combined ministry efforts of many of the predecessor agencies, and developed a strong network of community service centers, while continuing to work on child welfare.
Linking these organizations created a strong and continuing bond between the two Lutheran bodies, which shared the goal of meeting the social ministry needs of the entire community. Every Lutheran congregation within the local 22 counties of the LCMS and the ELCA (from Warren County in northeastern New York to the end of Suffolk County on Long Island) is eligible to be a member of the agency. Membership carries with it responsibility for the election of the Lutheran Social Services of New York Board of Directors.
The Bethlehem Home continued until the early 1970s, during which time the Board of Directors considered expanding the orphanage. However, a new field called “foster care” had become the preferred way for New York City agencies to care for children in need of home placement. In 1972, the Bethlehem Home was tragically destroyed by fire. Instead of rebuilding, the land was sold and LCS entered into the foster care system. At that time, a new Chief Executive Officer (CEO), The Rev. Lee H. Wesley, was brought on board. His knowledge of Lutheran social services helped grow the foster care outreach and community programs.
LCS changed its name, in 1990, to Lutheran Social Services of Metropolitan New York (LSSMNY), reinstating the name of one of the consolidating agencies of 1970. LSSMNY expanded in 1995 with the incorporation of a related entity, Lutheran Family and Community Services (LFCS), to focus on community services. LSSMNY also expanded to meet the needs of a growing homeless population, sponsoring the creation of several housing programs and becoming an umbrella organization to all the related programs, collectively known as Lutheran Social Services of New York (LSSNY). The Bergen Street Residence was created to care for 58 mentally ill and/or homeless adults in a permanent setting. In 1995, the Muhlenberg Residence opened to serve those meeting similar criteria, and a third permanent housing ministry, Community House, began in 1999 in partnership with the Prospect Park YMCA. Those facilities are located in Brooklyn. Also, in 1999, LFCS absorbed the New York City direct refugee and immigration services program of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, providing refugees, asylum seekers (including children released from immigration detention) and other immigrants with immigration legal services and case management services that meet essential needs such as housing, food, social support, and health services. In 2014, the Safe Haven for Children program was created to provide shelter and foster parent services to unaccompanied children.
Dr. Wesley retired in June 1998, having served as President/CEO for 22 years. Shortly thereafter, he was succeeded by Rev. Russell Norris. In recent years, only two events have significantly affected daily operations. In February 1999, the agency headquarters on Park Place in Manhattan suffered a serious fire. Although workers were not able to return to the building for nine months, the staff kept programs going and sustained the ministry by working from remote locations.
The events of September 11, 2001, again closed the offices on Park Place (two blocks from the World Trade Center) and challenged agency staff far beyond their expected endurance. The staff faithfully tolerated three months of displacement, while continuing to operate existing programs and looking for new areas of growth. During this time, the Family and Community Services divisions of the agency were reenergized and expanded through staff efforts. With assistance from Lutheran Disaster Response of New York, “Project LIFE” (Lutheran Initiative for Empowerment) was created as a care management program serving people who suffered losses on 9/11.
In April 2003, following two interim President/CEOs—Mr. Anthony Harris and Rev. Dr. David Benke—Mr. Ronald Drews was hired as permanent President/CEO. Mr. Drews served for nearly a decade, bringing considerable experience, and almost 30 years of expertise in Lutheran social service leadership.
In 2004, LSSNY moved its headquarters to 475 Riverside Drive in New York City. In 2005, the agency created a new, related entity, the New LIFE School, which opened as a middle school for children with special needs in the Bronx. Today, The New LIFE School has expanded to include high school. St. John’s I and II, supportive housing programs in the Bronx (including LSSNY’s first family supportive housing), joined the organization in 2011.
In the fall of 2012, LSSNY launched its Early LIFE program, which serves over 1,500 preschool children throughout New York City in 10 early childhood education centers and a network of Family Child Care Homes. In 2012, Lutheran Disaster Response New York and Project LIFE were reenergized in response to Superstorm Sandy. In 2013, The Center for Urban Education Ministries became part of LSSNY, to provide resources to Lutheran leaders of schools, churches and agencies.
The Rev. Dr. David H. Benke returned as interim President and CEO in the winter of 2016, an exciting and hopeful time as the agency continued to move toward new goals to bolster infrastructure and innovation. Dr. Benke joined with the Board of Directors and the executive leadership team to strengthen the organization’s strategic planning process designed to propel the agency to greater success in service delivery, client satisfaction, quality improvement and employee enrichment. A Research and Quality Improvement Department was formed to create processes and analytical tools to better measure outcomes and program successes.
Today, Lutheran Social Services of New York provides a myriad of social services, including helping seniors live independently, finding loving families for children, providing safe and affordable supportive housing, teaching students with special needs, maintaining hunger prevention programs, and providing legal and social services for immigrants and refugees. Each year, LSSNY helps more than 25,000 people lead healthier, happier, safer and more successful lives regardless of age, economic status, creed or race.