Published in The Bridgeport News, Written By Erika Hobbes
On any given day, you could bump into Tom Gaulke in one of Bridgeport’s coffee shops, one of its art houses or one of its community meetings. With his beard-hoodie- cellphone ensemble, it would be easy to mistake him for a resident hipster.
But on any given Sunday, you’ll find him in one place: At the altar of First Lutheran Church of the Trinity at 31st Street and Lowe Avenue. The Rev. Thomas R. Gaulke - or Pastor Tom is the minister of the church, a community anchor that is celebrating its 150th anniversary this November.
The unassuming demeanor is part of his charm. He is noted for making people feel at ease and for finding the “right balance between jocular and folksy,” as Kristin Ostberg, a congregation member, said.
But Gaulke stands out among a crowd. He is a leader navigating a tiny Evangelical Lutheran Church of America on its determined path for relevancy and revival. He aims to help reinvent how people interpret “church” and to welcome people from all backgrounds through Trinity’s doors.
“Much that I imagined about what ministry might look like had radically changed, but the message of grace remains central, and increasingly important to proclaim in a world filled with guilt, crushing expectations, and alienation,” Gaulke said, “ that’s what Jesus would do.”
And he practices what he preaches. Gaulke joined First Trinity in 2009, his first church after he graduated from the seminary.
He’d heard the call to join the clergy back in his high school days. He had been hearing the same message every week, he said, a message of grace and unconditional love.The more he thought about that message, he said, the more he “realized that my somewhat unusual life-long attraction to all-things spiritual and Jesus-y, coupled with an emerging sense of leadership and responsibility, was leading me down a path toward ministry.”
So he kept going down that path. From the start, he dug in and got his hands dirty by working with long-time church leaders to respond to the needs of First Trinity, which was diversifying racially, socially and economically and was on the cusp of growth. It had a long tradition of responding to the needs of the community, including opening God’s Closet, a clothing pantry. So Gaulkealso helped usher the church toward a new era of trying to make the lives of residents a little easier .
In 2011, he and partner organizations in Bridgeport formed Bridgeport Alliance, a grassroots group that promotes responsive government and an improved quality of life for Bridgeport residents. It currently advocates to restore the 31st Street bus line.
From 2012 to 2104, Gaulke served as a pastor for South Loop Campus Ministry, which serves college students in the area. He’s the board president for Southsiders Organized for Unity And Liberation, and he serves on the board of IIRON, which trains people to participate in civic life through collective action .
He also has been active in the Moral Mondays campaign that has organized demonstrations against Gov. Rauner’s Illinois proposed budget cuts, which many believe will severely hurt services for the working class and the poor.
“I am here,” he once he wrote on his blog,“to create a world where those oppressed by abuse or other injustice are freed to speak out against injustice, and find others to join them in speaking out, giving them power - and a world where they can do this in the name of God.”
First Lutheran Church of the Trinity is located at 643 W. 31st. St. Services are held at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. God’s Closet, a clothing pantry, is open 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Friday; and after church services on Sunday.