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St. Stephen Lutheran Church of the East Bay—Hayward, California



St. Stephen Lutheran Church of the East Bay is a small collection of friendly and faithful members whose residences are scattered across North-Central California—from the East Bay (Oakland area), to Stockton in the Central Valley, all the way up to the Sacramento area. Despite the distances that separate members, St. Stephen is a very close-knit group of believers who deeply appreciate their shared faith in Christ and faithfully drive the many miles necessary for them to gather for worship and fellowship together.

The beginnings and sustained existence of the congregation are, most importantly, a testament to God’s faithfulness and grace. In the fall of 1968, Don Luebkeman, from Castro Valley, California, heard one of Pastor Rollin Reim’s weekly radio broadcasts. He was led by God the Holy Spirit to contact Pastor Reim, then serving St. Stephen Lutheran Church of the San Francisco Peninsula in Mountain View, California. He suggested the exploration of a permanent church outreach in southern Alameda County in the East Bay.

Without hesitation, Pastor Reim offered to assist in the endeavor. After several months of dialogue, plans were made to hold exploratory Lenten services on each Sunday afternoon of the 1969 Lenten season in a rented hall in nearby San Lorenzo. The response to this outreach was far beyond expectations, and a Good Friday evening service was held in a vacated church in Castro Valley, which would eventually become the congregation’s first church home.

In early 1970, a much more suitable, recently-vacated church was found several blocks away. This proved to be an effective move in God’s plan to increase the congregation’s membership with confessionally-minded Lutherans, many of whom were acutely aware of the compromise and lack of orthodox practices in some Lutheran churches.

In the fall of 1970, a move in church location was needed because of the sale of the Castro Valley property. A suitable worship site was found in adjacent Hayward in a historic church building called the Pioneer Chapel.

Pastor Reim continued serving St. Stephen Lutheran Church of the East Bay (official name) until 1972. A new ILC graduate, Paul Schaller, became the first resident pastor.

After meeting in the homes of members in June 1991, Roy Cameron negotiated a rental agreement for a room at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, and services began in the Central Valley. In July 2004, after Pastor Emeritus Norbert Reim and his wife Celeste moved from Phoenix to the Bethel Retirement Community in Modesto, services were moved from Stockton to Modesto. In 2012, Central Valley services were moved from Modesto to a retirement home (Atria Senior Living) in Stockton. Lay-led worship services are still held at Atria on the first and third Sundays of each month, and a pastor-led worship and Bible Study is held on the last Tuesday of each month on a rotational basis between member homes in Rio Vista and Stockton, and at Atria Senior Living.

In 2010, due to sharply rising rental costs, the congregation moved from the Pioneer Chapel to renting the sanctuary of Grace Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Hayward, where the congregation holds worship services currently.

In 2014 the congregation sold the parsonage in Hayward to Pastor Steven Karp. In late 2016, with the vacancy at St. Stephen Lutheran Church (West Bay) in Mountain View and the pending retirement of Pastor Karp in the East Bay, it was agreed that it was in the best interest of both congregations to enter into a dual parish arrangement. Each congregation issued a divine call to Pastor Luke Bernthal, who accepted those calls and began his service in January 2017. Members of both congregations gather at the church in Mountain View for occasional special services, such as Pastor Bernthal’s installation, Easter Sunday, and the church picnic in July.

Through all these changes, the congregation remains steadfast in the Lord and His Word, and grateful for His grace and faithfulness for nearly fifty years. Pastors who have served St. Stephen Lutheran Church of the East Bay and Central Valley include Rollin Reim, April 1969-June 1972; Paul Schaller, June 1972-May 1980; Greg Kesterson, May 1980-March 1981; Mark Weis, March 1981-July 1987; Jerome Barthels, July 1987-October 1995; Michael Sprengeler, November 1995-August 2000; Rollin Reim, August 2000-January 2001 (interim); Nathan Pfeiffer, June 2002-July 2005; Steven Karp, May 2006-January 2017; and Luke Bernthal, January 2017-present.

Currently, Pastor Bernthal conducts services weekly in Hayward at 1:00 P.M. each Sunday with Bible Class at 2:00 P.M., and monthly services in the Central Valley, usually on the last Tuesday of each month at 2:00 P.M.

In addition to worship services and Bible studies, the congregation has enjoyed getting together for various activities over the years, including the annual church picnic, various Sunday brunches, and a boat tour of San Francisco Bay aboard the USS Potomac, which was the personal yacht belonging to President Franklin Roosevelt.

If your travel plans take you to the many sites and attractions of the beautiful Bay Area, we invite you to stop by to worship with us on Sunday afternoons in Hayward!

Luke Bernthal is the pastor of St. Stephen Lutheran Church of the East Bay in Hayward, California, and St. Stephen Lutheran Church of the San Francisco Peninsula in Mountain View, California.

[Acknowledgments: A majority of the information in this article was taken from a history of the congregation written by the late Don Luebkeman, with additional information provided by Jean Niblett and Timothy Blank.]