It stands as a stalwart institution at South Lindbergh Boulevard and Highway 40: Salem in Ladue United Methodist Church. Its steeple rises toward the heavens, and on any given Sunday, people gather inside to hear the message of the pastor. Many in the congregation are the pillars of St. Louis—they are the leaders of commerce and captains of industry. Standing at the pulpit with their undivided attention is the Rev. Terri Swan, the first woman to be the senior pastor in the church’s 172-year history.
Swan takes that fact in stride as she addresses the congregation with determination and grace. She also does it with a heavy dose of down-home style that comes from her farm-girl roots. I found that out when I met her at the church and asked her where she grew up. Southern Illinois, she said. Which town? I asked. Norris City was her reply, to which I responded, The home of the Fighting Cardinals. Her face lit up and asked, “How would you know Norris City?” I explained to her that in the early '80s, I worked as a sportscaster just down the highway at Channel 3 in Harrisburg, and covered Norris City basketball games several times. Like many towns in that region, it has a proud basketball, ‘Hoosier-like’ tradition and a strong rural feel.
“I have a twang,” the reverend admits with a smile. Since I had spent a couple of years surrounded by the same corn fields and coal mines, I nodded my understanding. “When I moved here from Texas, it was y’all,” she says. “ In Norris City, it was you’ins; and now, it’s you guys.” Twang or no twang, count Swan as among the most influential people in her community, and says she feels a responsibility to use that unique influence for building up the body of the church. “I believe that God expects us to use our gifts. God has given us these gifts—the gifts of influence and leadership and service—and those gifts are to be used in the world.”
Swan focuses much of her time away from the sanctuary on organizations like Variety the Children’s Charity, but she says the church as a group also works closely with Epworth Children & Family Services, Shalom House, St. Louis Public Schools, Habitat for Humanity, the Mozambique Initiative and Kingdom House.
Swan’s congregation played an instrumental role in the opening of Kingdom House day-care center and after-school education program, where members of the church are regular volunteers. “When you go to serve in someplace like Kingdom House, your heart is the one that’s going to be shaped and molded,” she notes. “You may be thinking you’re going to go help somebody, but you are the one who will be shaped from that.”
The reverend recently was honored with the prestigious Religious Leadership Award from the St. Louis Community Empowerment Foundation for her lifetime of service to humanitarian causes. The foundation also recognized her work with the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Red Cross and her missionary work in Russia, Honduras and Costa Rica. “I was quite humbled by that because I’ve been called to do what I do,” Swan says of the award. “It means to just be a voice for God in the community.”
In her office, Swan shows me a large book filled with Salem’s history. The church was founded by Pastor Ludwig Jacoby, who set up shop in 1841 at Seventh and Biddle streets in North St. Louis to serve German-speaking immigrants. Swan likes to tell the story of Jacoby’s first attempt at a Sunday service: She says when only Jacoby’s family showed up in the pews that day, the pastor took action. “He went out and started ringing the church bell; back then, it meant they needed help with a fire. And when the people showed up to put out the fire, he said, Now let’s have church.”
Swan says if she were ever faced with a similar situation today, she’d have no hesitation running up to the steeple and ringing the bell; but of course, now that would include cell-phone calls, emails, tweets and Facebook posts. She also likes to detail the church’s new mission statement that she helped develop: reaching out in extravagant love to fulfill God’s mission in the world. In Ladue, extravagance is something that often is in abundance, and it seemed to me a bit of a dichotomy that the greatest asset of the church can sometimes be its most difficult obstacle in reaching out.
But as the reverend explains, “I have people say, Oh, you’re Salem in Lah-Due, and I say, Yes we’re in Ladue. Some try to bring it as a negative, like I don’t have the right clothes to go there or enough money, and I will quickly say, We are very diverse. We have people who are CEOs of businesses and people who have made their way here from Katrina. So we have people from all walks of life.”
And they have a pastor who grew up on a hog and cattle farm in White County, Ill., who has ‘pulled’ goats, delivered piglets and fed calves. You’ins need to drop by and say hello.