NORMAL — A steeple topped by a cross now graces the Wittenberg Lutheran Center on South Main Street near College Avenue, giving greater visibility to the campus ministry near Illinois State University.
But it might not have been there if not for an accident in April that could have been tragic.
When Wittenberg's pastor, the Rev. Bill Jensen, saw the extensive damage caused when a car crashed into the building, his first concern was for the driver — who, police said, was going more than 90 mph.
He was thankful to learn the motorist was not badly hurt and that no students were in the kitchen when the car plowed through the brick wall and through a brick storage shed at 3 a.m.
The motorist, who was charged with multiple criminal and traffic offenses, just missed hitting a utility pole, which Jensen said might have saved the building but probably would have killed the driver.
His next concern was how to repair the building and, if possible, have some good come out of the incident.
“Leave it to God to be able to put something back together better than it was before,” said Jensen. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”
Almost immediately, people contacted him asking how they could help.
The combination of insurance money and donations allowed Jensen to not only repair the damage to the building and replace the contents of the kitchen but also add a long-desired steeple and cross.
On Dec. 10, the center will have a dedication ceremony celebrating completion of renovations and the tower project. The 30-foot-tall tower with the steeple and cross will be dedicated in remembrance of the Rev. Robert Lange, campus pastor at Wittenberg from 1977 to 1991, who died in July.
Members of Lange's family are expected to attend along with former students and Lange's former secretary.
“It's kind of a reunion of sorts,” Jensen said.
He hopes the addition “will make us more visible and more identified as a chapel than before.” So does ISU senior Samuel Bishop, who attends services at Wittenberg.
Bishop said people sometimes thought the center was a campus building or a bank.
“There's no better way to say you're a religious building than having a steeple and cross,” said the chemistry major from Marquette Heights.
About 70 students are served by the campus ministry, attending Sunday services, midweek chapel services or Bible study classes or just “hanging out,” said Jensen.
“The whole purpose of our being here is to be a home away from home,” he said.
The accident occurred shortly before finals week at ISU and Jensen said students often studied there late at night, knowing “they could make hot chocolate or throw a pizza in the oven.”
ISU sophomore Hannah Einfeldt of Bourbonnais, an early childhood education major, often studies there.
“Pastor Bill and (his wife) Cindy are amazing people and will help you in any way possible,” she said.
Bishop said, “When I'm not in class, I'm usually here. It's quiet here and you can get a lot of homework done.”
He said, "Having a church home is important. It's a blessing that this building is here."
Serving as a general contractor on such a major project might be a daunting task for most ministers. It's not a skill usually taught in seminaries.
But before becoming a minister, Jensen worked for nearly 20 years as a project manager for a Springfield construction company.
“Maybe that's why God put me here,” said Jensen, who has been at Wittenberg since 2009.