Obituary: Pastor Luther Youngdahl championed civil rights

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2012 - 9:43 PM

Rev. Luther Youngdahl

The Rev. Luther "Bill" Youngdahl hailed from a family filled with eminent pastors and politicians and played a prominent role in the 1960s civil rights movement.

His father was former Minnesota Gov. Luther Wallace Youngdahl. His uncle, the Rev. Reuben Youngdahl, helped build Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis into one of the nation's largest mega-churches.

It's a lineage he was proud of and drew inspiration from, said Andrea Youngdahl, his daughter.

"He was really a courageous and inspiring spokesperson for social justice," said Andrea, who lives in California.

"The message from Jesus was about ... loving everyone equally and everyone being a part of God's love. That really took the form of him working in the civil rights movement. He became very active in the peace movement, very supportive of women in ministry."

Youngdahl, a minister for nearly 50 years, died Aug. 15 in Winston-Salem, N.C., after battling Parkinson's disease. He was 85.

Born May 16, 1927, in Minneapolis, Youngdahl graduated from Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis in 1945. He received a bachelor's degree from Yale University, a master's of divinity degree from Augustana Theological Seminary in Illinois and a master's in social ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Youngdahl was ordained as a minister two years after his marriage to Eileen Vogt, of St. Paul, in 1952. He began his career at a church near Seattle, then returned to Minnesota to become pastor at St. Stephen Lutheran in Bloomington.

From there he was called to the national headquarters of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) in New York City, where he worked to build support among Lutheran churches for the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

His work in the civil rights movement eventually led him to a church in Omaha, a white congregation located in a neighborhood with a growing black population. Youngdahl tried building a relationship between the church and a predominantly black Lutheran church in the community.

The often tense and trying work was chronicled in the documentary "A Time for Burning," which was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1966. The film was selected for preservation in the U.S. Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2005.

Youngdahl became involved in the antiwar movement while serving as a pastor in Berkeley, Calif. Eventually, he again made his way back to Minnesota, where he started an urban studies program at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Andrea Youngdahl described her father as "very much an interfaith, interdenominational person." It was a path that eventually led him to become a United Church of Christ minister in 1970.

Youngdahl worked as a pastor up until just a few years ago, leading churches in Minnesota, California, Oregon and Washington -- including the First Congregational Church of Minneapolis.

In addition to his daughter Andrea, Youngdahl is survived by his sister, Margaret Youngdahl Peterson of Boston; another daughter, Julie Youngdahl of Winston-Salem, N.C.; a son, Jon Youngdahl of Washington, D.C.; three grandchildren and two great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Eileen. Services were held Saturday at Parkway United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem.

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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