PASTOR Steven Herzberg
ADDRESS 1105 West Fern Avenue
PHONE 956-631-6121
MAIN SERVICE Sundays at 8:00 and 9:30 A.M.

WELL, IT MUST HAVE BEEN A QUIET WEEK in Lake Wobegon, and Pastor Inqvist must have faced an empty sanctuary, because the license plates in the parking lot of Our Savior Lutheran Church, in McAllen, made it seem that most of Minnesota had moved to Texas for the winter. Lutherans are not indigenous to the Rio Grande Valley, and Our Savior has fewer than three hundred of them for most of the year. But that number swells to more than eight hundred from December through March, as migrants from Minnesota and other states in the upper Midwest head south to assume the status of winter Texans. And on the last Sunday in January, another six hundred or so emerged from their RVs and motor homes to attend the church’s annual polka worship service.

The first event was held in 1995, and it is now so popular—it drew 1,457 people this year—that it was split into three services and held in the gymnasium in the church’s Living Faith Center. Although my wife, Patricia, and I arrived at least fifteen minutes early for the nine-thirty service, all but a few of the 650 folding chairs were filled. The “band,” comprising Arnie Strander on guitar and Donna Illikainen on the accordion, was smaller than I had expected but large enough to produce a full sound. As we waited for the service to begin, the pair provided a prelude of familiar polka tunes.

Pastor Steven Herzberg, a tall, fine-looking man in his early fifties, welcomed the crowd and stirred a broad ripple of self-satisfied laughter by pointing out that the weather in Minnesota was −7 degrees, with a windchill factor of −21. Alluding to the multiple services, he told a joke about a young boy who, shown a plaque in the church foyer honoring those who had died in the service, asked, “Which service?”

In his opening prayer, Herzberg spoke of “a new tune we do not get to hear every week in our worship houses,” perhaps more to ease the traditionally minded than to alert God, who presumably had attended the eight o’clock service and was familiar with the drill. He then offered, with attribution to Google, a few tidbits about the music we’d be using in worship. He noted that the word “polka” is not, as the name might suggest, of Polish origin but derives from pulka, the Czech word for “half,” and refers to the extra half step or hop characteristic of the dance. He added that mariachi and ranchera bands in South Texas and northern Mexico had adopted both the polka rhythm and the accordion to create the music known as norteño, providing a common link between Lutherans and Latinos.

Word of this shared heritage seemed not to have gotten out to Latinos. Though there may have been some, we saw no Mexican American faces, and, apart from Pastor Herzberg’s serape-style stole, a banner that read “Welcome/Bienvenidos,” and an announcement of benevolent efforts on behalf of an orphanage in Reynosa, almost nothing about the service or setting reflected its Valley venue. The folk present that morning were overwhelmingly Anglo—or, to be more precise, northern European. An exceptionally high proportion appeared to have been, like us, on the trailing edge of the prime of life. (As much as I’d like to claim that phrase as my own, I think I probably heard it from Garrison Keillor.) They dressed modestly, simply, and above all, comfortably. Gray hair predominated, and the men who still had some kept it short and neatly trimmed. I saw no one who had used mousse to achieve a spiky effect. On the occasions when we read from the order of worship, at least 98 percent took advantage of magnifying lenses.

Though born during the Depression, they didn’t actually suffer much from it, but they knew enough about it not to waste what money they had, and, now retired, they could afford to head for warmer weather when winter struck. And they didn’t come just to fish or play golf or watch birds. In a phone conversation a few days later, church office manager Sue Wadgymar told me, “Our volunteer quotient goes way up when they’re here. Thank God for them!” As just one example of their industry, a quilting group known as the Piecemakers made and gave away more than 240 quilts last year.

The first song was “Come Let Us Worship (Come Now and Worship the Lord),” sung to the strains of the “Beer Barrel Polka.” (I’ll wait for a few moments while you try it.) The next tune, “The Happy Wanderer,” is more versatile than I had imagined and served well as the melody for “Amazing Grace,” “Joy to the World,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “In Christ There Is No East or West,” and, with the aid of a contraction in the fourth line, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” In the more challenging chorus, “Valderi” and “Valdera” were both translated as “He lives,” as in “He lives, He lives, He lives/He lives, Christ Jesus lives today/He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today.” (Another pause to let you see that, after you master the second line, it works quite nicely. Secular readers and adherents of other faiths may want to try singing almost any Emily Dickinson poem to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”)

After readings from Scripture and the singing of Psalm 103 to the tune of the “Liechtensteiner Polka,” Pastor Herzberg preached on the famous “love chapter,” I Corinthians 13. He pointed out that “love” in the passage is translated from the Greek word “agape,” a selfless concern for the other, appropriate for romantic love, to be sure, but with far wider application. He characterized that kind of unconditional love, exemplified by Christ’s giving himself on the cross, as the fundamental mainspring, the expected norm of the Christian life, the basis of the Kingdom of God, a taste of eternity on earth. He illustrated the unselfishness of agape love with the story of a young boy who was asked if he would give his blood, a rare type, in order to save his young sister’s life. After a moment’s hesitation, the boy said, “Sure, for my sister.” Then, when the transfusion was complete, he softly asked the doctor, “When do I die?” A bit predictable, perhaps, and maybe it never happened, but I hadn’t heard it before. I think it’s a pretty good story.

After the sermon, the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, and a peace-passing ritual during which we greeted those around us with polite smiles and firm, brief handshakes, Arnie and Donna played an offertory medley of familiar non-polka tunes that included “How Great Thou Art” and “I Come to the Garden Alone.” Pastor Herzberg announced that the lutefisk dinner scheduled for the following Saturday was sold-out, and two teenage girls made a plea for donations to support the orphanage in Reynosa. Then, as we blessed one another with a hymn of benediction, “May the Lord, Mighty God, bless and keep us forever,” sung to the sweet strains of “Edelweiss,” it was obvious that a morning of worshipping to the celebrative rhythms of Bohemian polka had moved these allegedly stolid Midwesterners deeply. Almost everyone in the auditorium was swaying—ever so slightly.