Even if you’re not a member of Ahwatukee’s Esperanza Lutheran Church, chances are you’ve met their pastor, Rev. Steve Hammer, a gregarious and community-minded man who has served the congregation for 22 years.
Last Sunday, Pastor Steve, as he is known, stood before his congregation for the last time before, his official retirement.
He encouraged those present – many of whom were non-parishioners who joined congregants at the special service to bid him adieu, to not treat his leaving as a sad moment but as an opportunity for a new song.
The pulpit will be filled by member Steve Holm who, until his retirement, had pastored at Tempe’s Desert Cross Lutheran Church. An interim pastor is expected in January.
Songs are important to Pastor Steve.
He is an amateur musician he’s played guitar, mandolin and banjo for years and often incorporated them into the service, especially when addressing students at the Children of Hope Child Development Center, which he helped found 13 years ago.
When asked to recount his favorite memories of the last 22 years, he replied, “There are too many to have a favorite, but the most gratifying memory is the preschool.”
“We were given the green light by the congregation only to find that we would have to have our zoning changed from a church to a school, and this meant installing a fire sprinkler system in the preschool buildings. We found out that this was going to cost around $75,000,” he recalled.
“Two remarkable things happened: the Phoenix Fire Department allowed us to open if we continued working toward completing the project and the congregation and the preschool staff and families refused to give up and here we are 13 years later, having provided a nurturing learning environment for over 600 children.”
Among the choir members were Pastor Steve’s two grandchildren, Finley and Grayson Schultz.
Finley is currently a student at Children of Hope and Grayson, a former pupil, is in second grade at Kyrene de la Mariposa Elementary.
Lynn Hockenberger, who has been with Children of Hope for 13 years, 11 as director, said the final Preschool Chapel Time with Pastor Steve was a bittersweet moment.
“At Chapel with Pastor Steve this month we discussed the goodness that is inside all of us, and how our light shines out, like a jack-o-lantern, when we share that goodness with others as Jesus did,” said Hockenberger.
“We’ve certainly been the recipients of Pastor’s goodness these last 13 years. When he presented the idea of starting a preschool to the congregation all those years ago, I nearly leapt out of my seat! Having been working in the early childhood field, I really felt called to join Pastor Steve on this journey and it has been a privilege every day since,” she said, adding:
“We’ve nurtured more than 600 children with this shared ministry, preparing them for kindergarten and beyond. We were lucky to have him in our little corner of Ahwatukee these last many wonderful years.”
Pastor Steve was born in Middletown, Indiana, where his grandfather was a dentist and his father a doctor. In sixth grade, the family moved to Bloomington, home of Indiana University where, following high school graduation, he enrolled in pre-law.
“I had intended to go to law school but took a job as a youth director, and then spent a summer as a church camp counselor and decided I might have a better chance of making a difference as a pastor instead of a lawyer,” he said.
“My first call was in Evansville Indiana in 1982. Through a ministerial association, I helped to establish a chapter of Habitat for Humanity. When I came to Esperanza, I was delighted to find out that the church was part of a coalition with three other east valley Lutheran congregations building homes for Habitat,” said Pastor Steve, whose church was also the first mobile packing site for Feed My Starving Children and continues to support the Mesa nonprofit.
It was while he was working on his master’s degree at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California, that he and wife Cyndi and their son and daughter accepted the call to Esperanza Lutheran Church.
At the time his wife was employed as a neonatal intensive care nurse. Their son Phillip had been diagnosed with autism and the call to Ahwatukee appeared a gift from God.
Pastor Steve explained, “We decided to find a place where we could live on one income, and have a stay-at-home parent to work with our son.
“For me, that meant giving up the ocean – at least on a daily basis – and for my wife, that meant giving up her career. We do not look at these things as sacrifices, they are just doing what needs to be done.
“We have dealt with many challenges and have made many adjustments, but it has sharpened our understanding of inclusion and the call to advocate for those who could be marginalized.”
Pastor Steve has coached a Tempe Special Olympics Unified Basketball team for more than 12 years.
Phillip is now nearly 30. Pastor Steve’s daughter Gretchen Schultz is a third-grade teacher at Lomas Elementary School and is the mother of two boys, 3 and 7.
As he ponders retirement, he said, “I plan to take care of my children, do some remodeling on my house and read books that have nothing to do with church.”
Pastor Steve also has several book outlines in hand – one the story of a small town and another with a working title of “There’s No Defense for My Gender.”
“I think men are in as much need of liberation as women as they face the interesting challenges of manhood,” said Hammer, a marriage and family therapy counselor.
He believes the church, as an ecclesiastical body, can influence the future but admits he sees it often misused for negative purposes. “I am still convinced that the church can be a force for creative and positive change in the world, but I find it regrettable that the Christian church has become much better at building walls than bridges,” he said.
Among the speakers Sunday was Michelle Tinsley, president of the Esperanza Lutheran Church Council and a 22-year Ahwatukee resident who joined the congregation in 2002. She credited Pastor Steve with building lasting ministries including Children of Hope Preschool.
“The second legacy he leaves is the formation of the Garden of Eat’n.’ This is a community garden with plots for rent on an annual basis,” she explained.
“Over the years the majority of rentals have come from outside the church and the garden is used to develop gardening skills in the desert environment,” Tinsley added. “I’m really appreciative that he has not only been an excellent pastor to our membership but has left a lasting positive impact for the greater Ahwatukee community.”
As congregants did their best to put on a happy face about their pastor of 22 years retiring, one church member seemed genuinely happy his tenure was ending – daughter Gretchen.
“My dad has lovingly performed weddings, given first communions, baptized so many babies, children and adults, including my sons. He has been there to comfort people in times of grief and officiate the funerals of the communities’ loved ones,” she said.
“While we are also very emotional about his retirement, my family is looking forward to having my dad around more. He can’t wait to spend more time with his two grandsons. On behalf of my mom, brother, husband and my children, thank you so much to Esperanza and the Ahwatukee community.”