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How the Lutherans put down roots

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Posted: Monday, March 26, 2007 11:00 pm

In the beginning there was Ahwatukee, and folks made fun of its name. "Foothills" wasn't yet part of the landscape, and neither was much else. The first homeowners arrived in the fall of 1973 and by the following summer a couple hundred houses, a country club golf course, a retirement recreation center and a construction equipment storage compound were here - but that was it. Streetlights and fire hydrants were still to come. Into this environment The Rev. Ken Johnson, his wife Arlene, and their three children moved. Johnson was leading a Portland, Ore., parish when the Lutheran Church in America identified two young Southwestern communities with growth potential. The church offered Johnson the choice of starting a parish in either Scottsdale or Ahwatukee. Anticipating faster growth here, Johnson relocated his family in August 1974. Those were lonely days for Johnson's oldest daughter Pam, one of only a few teenagers in Ahwatukee. At Tempe High School her classmates laughed at the new community's name, which most had trouble pronouncing. With no churches in the vicinity, Pam's father recruited parishioners by going door-to-door - which, given the sparsity of houses, didn't take very long. One of Johnson's first challenges was finding a suitable meeting place. The Ahwatukee Recreation Center's bylaws excluded young families, and little resembling a meeting place existed between Interstate 10 and Rural Road. Johnson persuaded the Kyrene School at Kyrene and Warner roads to allow his tiny parish to meet in its multipurpose cafeteria room. A lack of air conditioning and a paved road from Ahwatukee made things interesting during monsoon season. While the school had a piano, hundreds of sheep leisurely crossing Warner Road during winter grazing season caused the church's piano player to occasionally miss services. Surrounded by feeder lots and a chicken ranch, the aroma was far from heavenly when the wind blew. The parish held its initial worship service in Johnson's living room in November 1974 . Kyrene's first service drew 65 people in early December, and the church would go on to meet at the school for the next three years. Parishioners submitted names, took a vote, and Mountain View Lutheran Church was born. Ahwatukee's first food store, a Circle K, opened on Elliot Road in 1976. As Johnson searched for a suitable church location, Presley Development Company of Arizona offered land too close to South Mountain, lacking visibility and access, and too close to Circle K, in violation of a county ordinance regarding separation of church and liquor. Then Presley got religion, and a 3-and-a-half-acre site near Fort Ahwatukee, on 48th Street south of Elliot Road, was agreed upon as the bicentennial year drew to a close. When Mountain View's first building was christened in December 1977, Ahwatukee finally had its own meeting place. Johnson fervently believed that Mountain View should serve the community, so all were welcome. Sunday services brought many non-Lutherans into the fold, grateful for the opportunity to attend Ahwatukee's first church of any kind. Mountain View's doors opened to the community, with as many as 40 different groups, ranging from Boy Scouts to adult day care, making the church's facilities their own. Johnson went on to assist the church's Pacific Northwest Synod and was succeeded in May 1980 by The Rev. Donald Schneider, who quickly established himself as a fixture in the community and a driving force behind Mountain View's many outreach programs. Schneider established Ahwatukee Preschool, which counts Arizona State University football players Brent and Zach Miller among its alumni, during his first year in town. And it was Schneider behind that beard for 10 years as Santa Claus arriving via helicopter in the Alpha Beta Plaza to kick off the Christmas season in what has become an annual community tradition. As other religions' parishes sprang up, Mountain View's doors were open to Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians - all had a place of worship during their parishes' infancies, thanks to the generosity of the church. Mountain View Lutheran Church was instrumental in fostering a sense of community in Ahwatukee. From 80 percent seniors in the late 1970s to 80 percent growing families today, Mountain View parishioners currently number just over 1,000. Ken Johnson passed away in 1989, and Don Schneider retired as pastor in 1996. Today, there are some dozen houses of worship in the Village of Ahwatukee Foothills. In the very beginning, there was Mountain View Lutheran Church. Marty Gibson is a 19-year-resident of the community and the author of Phoenix's Ahwatukee Foothills by Arcadia Publishing.

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