For Nate Preisinger – Pastor Nate, as he’s known to those in his Parkside Lutheran Church – faith gets lived out in community. It’s not just about tackling life’s big questions, it’s about connecting with like-minded people, supporting each other, growing together. Sometimes coffee is as good as Communion.
Now Preisinger is taking those connections a step further as a board member of NorthBuffalo.org, the new community organization focused on quality of life in North Buffalo. It’s a way, he says, to make a difference personally in the neighborhood where he and his family live, and to help the congregation of Parkside Lutheran, a venerable institution at the triangular corner of Linden and Wallace avenues, get out and meet real human needs.
“I believe strongly in a church that serves the community it lives in,” says Preisinger, who is 28. “A church that exists only for itself is completely missing the mark in Christ’s instruction to us to go and make disciples of all nations. And as their pastor, I want to start pushing this congregation outside of their walls, not only because that’s what we’re supposed to do, but because it’s what this church needs in order to thrive.”
Already the century-old church hosts the North Buffalo Food Pantry and a series of yoga classes. “We have nothing but space here,” Preisinger says. “It’s a huge building, and I would love to find ways to get this place used.” And he hopes that his involvement in NorthBuffalo.org will surface more opportunities to serve the community. For example, he says, Parkside Lutheran has a “deep sense and love of music”; maybe there’s a way to parlay that into serving students whose public-school music programs are falling victim to budget-cutting. “There are needs that I see in the community, and I would love to see us being part of meeting those needs,” he says.
It’s a truism of church life that nothing happens quickly, so in working with NorthBuffalo.org, he says, “I’m not used to things moving this quickly. It’s a very energetic and driven group of people.”
The same could be said for Pastor Nate. The son of a Lutheran minister, he grew up in Scotia, near Schenectady, the middle child between two sisters. His sense of a call to ministry, he says, was forged in the clarifying fire of Sept. 11, 2001. He was a sophomore in high school.
“For someone in my generation, Sept. 11 was the first time that mortality was put in front of us, unless we had individual experiences,” he says. “Up until that point, there was nothing to be afraid of. The dot-com boom had hit; everything was great. I remember going to church – there was a special prayer service that night – and interacting with my pastor and struggling through that with him. My faith as a whole and my trust in a higher power became much more real to me through processing that event.”
He went on to study religion and English at St. Olaf College, a highly regarded Lutheran-affiliated school in Minnesota. It was there he met his wife, Amanda Scates-Preisinger, a native of Omaha, Neb. She has a master’s degree in public health and has done grantwriting for the Elmwood Health Center and taught dance for Danceability, a non-profit studio for dancers with special needs. The couple is bleary-eyed recently with a newborn in their house on Carmel Road – Solomon, born Feb. 22 – as well as their daughter Evelyn, who’s 2½.
Preisinger came to Buffalo in 2008 as part of a pilot program of Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, to train future ministers through hands-on experience. Working with Zion Lutheran Church in Clarence Center, he developed a “house church” – a start-up congregation – focused on people in their 20s and 30s. The new congregation, called Organic Faith Community, began meeting at Parkside Lutheran, and church higher-ups suggested that Preisinger serve the church, and both congregations, as an intern pastoral leader. A year later, he was called as Parkside’s permanent pastor.
As in so many mainline churches, Parkside at that time was faced with a dwindling congregation. The church, he says, was “very much focused on survival, and rightfully so. They really thought they were going to have to close the doors.” Since then the congregation has rebounded; on one happy Sunday recently they took in 17 new members, including some young families who have bolstered the Sunday school population.
It’s a congregation in two acts: the Sunday-morning crowd with their organ music and liturgy from the Lutheran Book of Worship, and Organic Faith Community, which worships on Thursday nights in a very different style.
The traditional Sunday worship, Preisinger says, “is deeply meaningful; it’s part of our DNA. There’s something important about it, especially when it’s a true expression of the community, and I think that’s what we have here. But if you haven’t grown up with this, it’s very hard to learn to appreciate it.”
Hence the midweek worship. They move some pews around in Parkside’s elegant sanctuary to make an intimate circle. The music, in the Taizé tradition, is chantlike and repetitive; people sing along or use the time to meditate and pray. Pastor Nate’s message is, he says, “sermon-ish, but it’s typically something more conversational, and I always have questions to go along with it, and I always try to include a visual element, something for them to interact with. We’re really trying to design it as more of an open space for people, where you can come and bring your questions and where it’s not dictated for you. People appreciate the authenticity of that and the fact that I’m talking to them as a person and they’re talking to each other.
“At some point, too, there’s just a need within people for community, and a longing for that. Still today the church really provides that in a way that not many other institutions can. I personally believe there’s something deeply important about a spiritual community and what that can provide. There’s a real need within every individual to connect with their Creator in some way and understand that a little bit more. A spiritual community allows you the opportunity and the space to ask some of the bigger questions of life.”