MANATEE -- Bishop Robert G. Schaefer of the Florida and Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was more than a bit surprised when he was joined at the pulpit at Redeemer Lutheran Church of Bradenton on Sunday by a toddler.
Schaefer had traveled from Tampa to be part of Redeemer's 50th anniversary celebration, which culminated Sunday with a catered dinner after the regular service.
But before he could get started, the bishop was approached by church member Easton Mathews, age 1, nicknamed "Bubba," who offered him a swig from his baby bottle.
Easton, who is the son of Palmetto Police Department Officer Micah Mathews and his wife, Stephanie, is one of only 10 children currently at
tending the church, which has operated from 1963 to 2013 at 6311 Third Ave. W., and has 170 members during the winter and about 100 during the summer.
Nichole Kelly, the church's youth and family minster, had just called the children, including Easton, up front for a children's lesson. Easton showed up where he wasn't expected a few moments later to surprise the bishop.
Thinking fast, the bishop took a fake gulp of "Milky BaBa" and handed it back to the toddler.
Later at the dinner, the bishop called Easton's innocent gesture a "sign of the future."
Redeemer, like many Manatee County churches, is about 90 percent filled with mature members who would love sharing their talents, memories and experience with youth, the bishop said.
"Talk about evangelism," Schaefer told the gathering, getting a huge laugh. "I just wish the drink had been stronger."
"We do need more youngsters," said Kelly, who recommends Redeemer's 8:45 a.m. Sunday school as a great place for new families to meet Easton, the church's new bottle-toting mascot, and bring their children to check out Redeemer's other assets. "We have something wonderful to offer them at Redeemer, a family away from home."
To perhaps show what the church is all about, church member Nancy Elberfeld gave every family who attended the dinner a gift box. Inside it, she had placed her love for them, she said in a note attached to the box.
"You never can unwrap it, please leave the ribbon tied," she wrote. "Just hold the box close to your heart, it's filled with love inside."
Youth movement starts
Although most 50-year church celebrations just focus on the past, Redeemer Lutheran also focused on the future Sunday.
James Lofgren, a member of the Redeemer Church Council, said he and his fellow members struck gold on Sept. 15 when Pastor Jared Olson was installed as only the church's third senior pastor in 50 years.
Olson follows the church's beloved first Pastor Kenneth Baar, who served from 1963 to 1991 and was in attendance Sunday along with his wife, Louise, and the late Pastor Albert Keyser, who served from 1992 to 2006. The church had interim pastors from 2006 to this year.
Olson had previously been the pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Port St. Lucie. People are excited about Olson's youth. He's 44, but he looks 24. In fact, Schaefer kiddingly called him 23 at the celebration.
Besides looking like a member of a boy band, Olson is a baseball nut. He's a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan and he and his wife, Anna, both attended Game 2 in Boston of the recent World Series.
"He lives and dies with the Sox and yells at the TV," Anna said of her husband.
The couple is expecting Abigail, who will take her place as the 11th child in the church congregation, about Jan. 18.
Pastor Olson volunteers every Thursday at Our Daily Bread, his wife said.
Olson is re-starting the Redeemer softball team after four years of no softball, Lofgren said.
Over the last 50 years, Redeemer has been famous for its softball and golf teams, which have sort of faded away until now, said member Dorothy Nack.
Besides loving softball and golf and other sports, Olson also has a great admiration for crafts, especially the work of church members Pat Wilcox and Shirley Brodbeck , whose work could also attract new youthful church members.
Wilcox directs the church's "Quilters," a group of 20 people who meet 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Thursday to make 13 quilts each session, which are distributed through Lutheran World Relief.
Youngsters who would like to learn how to quilt are invited to join the group, Wilcox said.
"We usually have three tables going," Wilcox added.
Brodbeck's "Prayer Shawl Warriors" meet the first Wednesday of each month at 1 p.m. at the church to knit shawls.
"We pray for the person as we create the shawl," Brodbeck said. The Prayer Shawl Warriors, who will gladly teach youngsters how to knit, include Marie Heerd cq, Ruth Young, Patti Montgomery, Mary Ellen Shoops, Cammy Morgan and Brodbeck
Pictures honor past
When Olson introduced Louise Baar , wife of the former pastor, at the dinner he promised she would be funny and she was.
She communicated her love for her husband in a way that, perhaps, the audience had never heard before.
"I would like to put him in vinegar and sugar and pickle him," Baar said. "I don't want to be alone."
Kenneth Baar, who is 87, is legally blind due to diabetes. He hasn't been able to drive for 12 years.
"But we still travel with me doing the driving," Louise Baar said.
The couple just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
In an emotional moment during a church history movie shown during dinner, Louise Baar recalls how four women from Redeemer came to her house and helped her pack to move to Lakewood Ranch, where the couple now lives and attends Living Lord Lutheran Church, which was a mission church out of Redeemer.
"He still loves Redeemer," Louise Baar tearfully said of her husband.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.