By Devin Blake Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Aug 28, 2023 at 1:56 PM

To some, the 53206 ZIP code is synonymous with issues such as lead poisoning, poverty, violence and mass incarceration.

But to the congregants of Hephatha Lutheran Church, their neighborhood is much more.

They say many people miss the love and peace they regularly see.

“The church is the cornerstone of the community,” said Marquitta Smith.

Smith, 38, had to speak over the chatter of dozens of kids enjoying a pizza party in the church’s dining hall on a Tuesday evening.

Smith has been a member of Hephatha, which sits at the corner of North 18th and West Locust streets, since she was a child. Now her four kids are members as well.

Smith also is the goddaughter of the pastor, Mary Martha Kannass.

“She’s so awesome,” said Smith. “She’s literally an angel.”

The church leadership goes out of its way to welcome everyone, Kannass said.

“If you’re someone who’s been a member here for 40 years, you understand that you’re not more important than the person who just walked in the door,” Kannass said. “We’re all here with the same need.”

Kannass, who became pastor over 30 years ago, has seen the church grow in two important ways.

First, the church has grown in number.

Currently, the church has roughly 430 members, and, on any given Sunday morning, there are about 100 people worshipping, both in person and online.

The second way the church has grown is in its “capacity to serve,” Kannass said.

"The pulse of our ministry"

What people often call “social justice issues,” Kannass calls “the pulse of our ministry.”

An ongoing issue the church is involved in is advocating around the crisis of lead poisoning

According to 2021 data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 6.25% of children in Milwaukee County under the age of 6 had elevated levels of lead in their blood, compared to 3.64% for Wisconsin as a whole. Children with elevated lead level rates close to or over 20% were found in several census tracts within the 53206 ZIP code.

Such elevated levels are associated with increased risks for cognitive and behavioral problems during development and later in life.

With this backdrop, Hephatha helped create the Coalition on Lead Emergency, or COLE.

COLE, now its own entity, provides education about lead poisoning and works to facilitate access to resources, such as lead filtering pitchers, lead safety kits and training for jobs in lead abatement, among other things.

“We are called to the work of justice – changing the forces, battling the forces that make lead poisoning such a prominent problem … and then additionally, we’re called to direct service,” Kannass said.

Failing to address the economic and political realities of the lives of the people in their neighborhood – both in systemic and everyday ways – would be failing to live up to their biblical mandate, as Kannass and the congregation interpret it.

“We have material poverty. We have the impacts of systemic racism. This is affecting people in their daily lives, 24 hours a day, and it’s contrary to the gospel,” Kannass said.

Serving incarcerated people

Other projects of the church include organizing worship opportunities for people who are incarcerated and serving as a Strong Baby Sanctuary.

The Strong Baby Sanctuary program is a collaboration between Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital and various church congregations. The goal is to help reduce infant mortality, which disproportionately affects communities of color.

The Hephatha sanctuary, like other sanctuaries, fosters “a network of resources for Black parents, especially for Black parents with children under the age of one,” said Elisha Branch, who facilitates the sanctuary at Hephatha.

Branch, too, has been going to Hephatha since she was a child and now has a child who attends as well.

Roughly eight years ago, Kannass, and others, worked to help build a congregation within the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center.

Additionally, the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, assistant minister at Hephatha, helps bring several individuals from the center to the church every Sunday for service.

Not only does it “let the (prison) system and the staff at the Chaney Center know that the community really cares about these people,” it also helps the people who are incarcerated “develop relationships in the community that will help them when they get out,” Ellwanger said.

Relationships like these are crucial for people to successfully rebuild their lives after being incarcerated. 

“We ought to at least resemble the ministry of Jesus. And see what his interactions were, as far as teaching, preaching, healing, bringing justice, and so we want to be at least resembling the ministry of Jesus in our time and in our place,” Kannass said.

For more information

Those interested can call the church at (414) 264-0234 or visit its website