Kevin Riordan: Lutheran Bishop-elect Wolfgang Herz-Lane looks back on 35 years in Camden

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Bishop-elect Wolfgang Herz-Lane will soon leave Camden after 35 years. "It changes your life," he said. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

Lutheran Bishop-elect Wolfgang Herz-Lane fell in love with Camden 35 years ago, and that has made all the difference.

"It changes your life," Herz-Lane says of the city he will leave in August to lead the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Baltimore-based organization encompasses 180 churches with 85,000 members.

"People either absolutely love Camden or they absolutely hate it," he observes. "Within the first year, I knew I loved it."

Herz-Lane was a 21-year-old volunteer from Schramberg, Germany, a lapsed Catholic in a generation with many questions for God, when he arrived in the United States in 1975.

"I was in North Camden, the poorest neighborhood in the poorest city in America. I thought, 'Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?' " says Herz-Lane, 56.

"But I fell in love with the people. They were incredibly accepting and welcoming of me, a white German guy. And I fell in love with Grace Lutheran Church."

The cozy congregation at Fourth and State Streets is where he met the Rev. Margaret Lane, who became his wife in 1981. The couple have two grown sons and a grandchild on the way.

Grace Lutheran also is where Herz-Lane heard his call to ministry. He entered Mount Airy's Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1995, was ordained in 2001, and established Bridge of Peace church in Camden's Fairview section that same year.

Despite these and other satisfactions, Herz-Lane's relationship with his adopted hometown has been a love-hate affair.

I can relate: The decency of the majority of city residents can be overwhelmed by the depravity of a few. Much of Camden is an exhausted and exhausting landscape of human frailty and folly. It's like a giant exhibit of everything that can go wrong.

"I drive down the street and think, 'Can't they ever fix this?' It's just the dysfunction, and the sheer frustration of seeing generation after generation of good neighborhood people being frustrated at every turn because the system is against them," Herz-Lane says.

Like a number of activists, he had high hopes for the state's takeover of the city, which has mostly ended.

"I was a true believer," Herz-Lane says. "But again, the system let us down. The contracts went to the same old people. Cooper Hospital and the aquarium and the waterfront got all the money."

He and I agree: The powers that be certainly do have a way of getting what they want in Camden, often using our tax dollars.

Herz-Lane is proud to have been part of incremental changes - the houses built or renovated in North Camden, the social services established downtown. He calls the demolition of Riverfront Prison, whose construction he and others tried to block in the early 1980s, a victory.

"I actually like what the new mayor [Dana Redd] is doing," he says. "I think she really cares about the neighborhoods, and I think she's been dealing with the state pretty well.

"I don't know that she can do as much to change things as needs to be done, because of the power structure," he adds. "But she's got the right personality. She's got spunk."

Camden, Herz-Lane says, has taught him about the power of God.

"I was puzzled for so many years why people in Camden had such a strong faith," he says. "You'd think, 'God's not blessing them at all.' But God chooses to show up in the least likely of places. God is always, always, with the poor, and always with the messiness of life.

"Camden deepened my faith," he adds. "No question."

No wonder he's sad about moving to Baltimore, where he will work at the synod headquarters downtown and his wife hopes to find a new church to pastor.

"I've said before, 'You can leave Camden, but Camden isn't going to leave you,' " Herz-Lane says. "We're not going to be that far away, and I don't think we're going to sell the house. We may not be done with Camden."

 


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.