The sights, sounds and scents of German culture filled the air in the Walter Lutheran Academy gymnasium, on Oct. 16. It was there, at 305 Circle Ave., that folks were celebrating St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church’s annual Oktoberfest celebration.

Although the event was mostly a celebration of German culture, there was somewhat of a multi-ethnic flavor (perhaps because of the diverse congregation at St. John). For instance, plenty of attendees enjoyed watching St. John member Laura Callahan display her Irish step-dancing skills. (An upcoming Soul Food dinner in February further exemplifies the church’s multiculturalism.)

The church’s Oktoberfest also gave people an opportunity to decorate greeting cards that will be sent to the men and women serving in the armed forces, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And fall was a big theme, too.

The tables in the gym were adorned with autumn leaves and pumpkins, and the walls were festooned with figures in lederhosen, courtesy of Tina Neubieser. Oompah music (or, ethnic German tunes) was also played by St. John musicians wearing green Tyrolean hats. Perhaps the most important part of the night, though, were the German dishes served by Marilyn Eberspacher and her friends.

The buffet table was a meat-lover’s dream, featuring: chicken, pork, brats, and a powerful dish containing sausage, sauerkraut and potatoes. “If you go home hungry,” Marilyn joked, “don’t come back.”

She also reminded the 140 festival-goers to “save your forks, the best is yet to come.” The “best” being a desert-table laden with delights like red velvet cake.

At a rear table, Sue Green oversaw church members, ages 8-80, as they affixed stars and hearts to cards that were sent to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Green works for the Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church, and is currently focused on this morale-boosting program. Thus far, she has visited 15-20 churches; typically, she gathers 100 cards per congregation. 

In addition to the colorfully decorated cards, soldiers were sent pocket-sized “prayer shawls.”  They are knitted in the pattern of the American flag and contain a daily invocation.

The congregation is very supportive of such causes: one of its favorite sons, Joshua Harris, died while serving in Afghanistan. Green said that the cards and shawls are sent to military chaplains who distribute them to the troops.

Oktoberfest may have originated in Deutschland, but St. John Pastor Leonard Payton sees it as more than a celebration of the church’s rich German heritage. It’s also part of St. John’s outreach to the community. 

“We’re trying to do things to make life better in the neighborhood,” said Payton, adding that the congregation also keeps a community garden, to exemplify this point. “We have a community garden, with eleven plots maintained by neighborhood people.”

“We’re also heavily involved with the Forest Park Food Pantry,” he said. “We gather [food], once a month, from the congregation and bring in enough to fill two to three grocery carts.”

The outreach was evident enough at Oktoberfest, as a new member was seated at the same table as Marlene Quandt. The former village clerk is the third-generation member of her family to attend St. John.

Another lifelong member at the table, Shirley Gehrke, joked about the lack of beer at the festival ­- normally an integral part of Oktoberfest celebrations.

“The only beer you’ll find here is in the brats,” she said. 

When asked about this missing ingredient, Pastor Payton smiled and said, “We don’t have a liquor license.”

“Besides, there are plenty of good places to get a beer in this town,” he said.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.