"I Love to Tell the Story"

Pilgrim Lutheran Church

Bethesda, Maryland

 Est. 1946

"The story of Pilgrim is the story of the Word of God in action. Three times in the Book of Acts we read, 'The Word of the Lord grew' (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20). The Word of God is 'a force in history, enmeshed in events, involving people' (Franzmann). God works through His people, spreading His word. That's the Pilgrim story." -- Rev. Lester E. Zeitler, beloved Pilgrim Pastor from 1969-1994

In 1944, the Rev. Karl Boehmke, recent graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, was called to the Washington area by the newly-formed Southeastern District, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, to assist in exploring opportunities for new missions. It was post-World War II, and the capital city had experienced considerable growth. In 1945, it was decided that the west of Washington was a growing field. Pastor Boehmke began his work, commuting by bus from Mt. Rainer, going from house-to-house sharing the Good News. With no suitable place to rent for worship services and Sunday School in the new and expanding "bedroom suburb," the Lord provided a place - first, in the basement of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Houston, and then in the home of Mr. and Mrs. William Sandoz in Westgate. Soon, plans were made for a church facility.

In June 1946, after a year at the Sandoz residence, the first worship service and Sunday School were held in a newly-constructed Pilgrim Chapel at Jamestown Road and Flint Drive, Westgate. The congregation officially organized on June 9, 1946, with 17 charter members and 85 children enrolled in Sunday School. On May 25, 1947, Pilgrim Chapel was formally dedicated and, in 1948, was officially received as a member of the LC-MS. 

Pastor Boehmke shepherded the Pilgrim congregation until the fall of 1950, when he became an Air Force chaplain. His ministry can be described in the kind of person he hoped God's people would become: "Filled with love for Christ, an attentive listener, reverent in and out of God's house, more ready to serve than be served, a daily user of God's word and prayer, faithful in bringing others, thankful for God's gifts, and a humble guest at the Lord's Table."

The Rev. Enno Lohrmann and his wife Marguerite came to Pilgrim in September 1951, bringing creative energy and vitality to a growing church. As in its formative years, the mission and ministry of our church continued to focus on worship, education, fellowship, witness, and service.  Construction of a new church on Massachusetts Avenue, our present location, began in June 1956, and dedication was celebrated in November 1957. The dedication of the new church was a noble event, with delegates from six embassies, representing Lutheran countries of the world, participating in the professional. Pastor Luhrmann's ministry extended beyond Pilgrim, and thus it was not surprising that in January 1959 he accepted a call from the Lutheran Missionary Society of Baltimore to become chaplain of Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville. 

On October 4, 1959, Rev. Dr. Martin Poch, Army and Air Force chaplain, was installed as Pilgrim's third pastor. He brought with him his wife Dorothy, daughter Kay Lynch Kirkpatrick, and granddaughter Vicki (whom we are blessed to still have as a Pilgrim member!). Dr. Poch supported a vicarage program at Pilgrim to provide seminary students with theological field experience and service. He also grew Pilgrim's reputation as a church that is passionate for reaching and serving the surrounding community. In 1967, Dr. Poch became part-time president of the Southeastern District, and in 1968 he was elected to the full-time presidency. Rev. Gerald Kuhn became Pilgrim's interim pastor. 

The call to become Pilgrim's fourth pastor came to Rev. Lester E. Zeitler in June 1969 while he was serving on the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, as assistant dean of students and associate professor of practical theology. Previously, he was pastor of a mission congregation in Pacifica, California. Pastor Zeitler moved to Bethesda with his energetic, loving wife, Sylvia, and children Jonathan, Christa, and Melinda. He was installed as pastor on September 12, 1969. For 25 years, he oversaw an immense period of growth, outreach, and bustling activity at Pilgrim. His sermons, discussions, and newsletter articles were geared towards keeping us firm in the faith and together. A lover of music and its role in worship, Pastor Zeitler also supported the purchase and dedication of a memorial Steinway grand piano and the quest for a new pipe organ, which resulted in Pilgrim's remarkable 20-rank, tracker action Rieger organ from Austria. What a blessing this instrument has been to our congregation!  Continuing Dr. Poch's tradition, Pastor Zeitler resumed the vicarage program - entirely supported by the congregation in order to provide the congregants with a sense of participation in the mission of the church-at-large. This continued until 1991 when Pilgrim decided to call an associate pastor, Rev. Arnold Deknatel, to assist Pastor Zeitler as he moved toward retirement.

Not only did Pastor Zeitler promote forward progress in our Christian education, congregation investment program, music, social ministry, vicarage, church library, and evangelism efforts, but he became well-known throughout the Washington-Metropolitan area for his ministry to the homeless. He embodied the words in 1 John 3:17: "If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" We were saddened at Pastor Zeitler's retirement on June 26, 1994, but deeply thankful for the blessing of his and Sylvia's 25 years of service to Pilgrim. 

Chaplain Ben Nass became Pilgrim's Interim Pastor from October 1994 to May 1996, during which time Pilgrim flourished under his love, leadership, and support.  Pilgrim celebrated its 50th Anniversary in June 1996! Year-in, and year-out, faithful pastors, including Paul Sutterer, David Pearcy, James Kreft, and interim pastor, John Duran, have each served Pilgrim with love and dedication, baptized and confirmed souls, celebrated Communion, preached the Gospel, married, buried, provided counseling, and led festival services.  Through the decades, each equipped Pilgrim members and friends to respond to Jesus’ call: “Who will go and work today?” with the answer: “Here am I, send me, send me!.” 

How thankful we are that Pastor Joshua Rusert accepted Pilgrim’s call, was installed on August 19, 2018, and will lead the ministry to our members and to the surrounding community.  Soli Deo Gloria!


As our current chapter of Pilgrim's story unfolds, we remember and give thanks for the clergy and laity who came before us. We are privileged to walk in their history, to follow their example, and to build on their accomplishments, cherishing the past. God has blessed Pilgrim with an amazing and inspiring past, and now our vision is toward the future. We look forward to Pilgrim's continued service to its members and the surrounding community as we reach out to "tell the Story" in creative, meaningful ways, while retaining our Lutheran heritage and identity.