In the year 1886, eleven Lutheran congregations in the metropolitan New York area created the Bethlehem Orphan and Half-Orphan Asylum, to take care of children who were orphaned 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 the full American character and its expanding ethnic diversity.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, many Lutheran mission societies and other groups 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 in the area of 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 whole 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 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 the foster care outreach and community programs grow. In 1990, the agency expanded to meet the needs of a growing homeless population. 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. These facilities are all located in Brooklyn.
In 1990 the agency changed its name to Lutheran Social Services of New York (LSSNY) reinstating a name of one of the consolidating agencies of 1970. This change more accurately reflected the agency’s work and strengthened the connection to a national network of Lutheran social ministry organizations. 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 repair existing programs and look for new areas of growth. During this time, the Family and Community Services division of the agency was 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, Anthony Harris and Rev. Dr. David Benke, Ronald Drews was hired as permanent President/CEO. Ron brings considerable experience in Lutheran social service leadership, having spent almost 30 years in this ministry.
Drawing on our Lutheran heritage of hope for all people, LSSNY is guided by a commitment to the people we serve through the provision of “life-changing” services.