When Accompaniment Becomes a Calling
On the East Side of St. Paul are eight ELCA congregations worshiping, serving, and living out their missional calls: Arlington Hills, First, Grace, Good Samaritan, Gustavus Adolphus, Hope, Our Redeemer, and Shobi’s Table. Together, we have begun the first steps towards an embodiment of collaborative and intentional ministry on the East Side.
A couple of years ago conversation arose within our congregations and the synod around collaboration of ministry between these congregations, discerning God’s call for the church’s presence, gifts, and accompaniment within our East Side neighborhood. I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in so many awesome “a-ha!” moments because these conversations came together from many different directions bubbling forth all at once.
With support from Bishop Lull and leadership from the Rev. Justin Grimm, Director for Evangelical Mission, intentional conversation about East Side Area Ministry Strategy began a year ago with clergy and laity leadership. The conversation that arose has developed two calls for East Side churches:
Firstly, our need to share in collaboration for the ministries that we do well. Some of these collaborations mean joining together for summer stretch youth ministry; sharing ideas and support for one another; and community outreach and engagement, such as Project Home and Habitat for Humanity.
Secondly, our need to listen to God’s call through our neighbors. As clergy and congregations, we know that our East Side neighborhood is a gateway for immigrants, from the Swedes that flocked to Swede Hollow in the 19th century to the Hmong community from the 1970s through today, to recent immigrants, including refugees. We know that our neighborhoods of the East Side (Payne-Phalen, Dayton’s Bluff, and the Greater East Side) have their own unique identities, demographics, and culture. We know that our congregational community schools have asked for the church to be present in the lives of the children - through tutoring, reading, conversation, and the Sheridan Story Project weekend food backpack program. We know these things and more because we have been listening to our neighbors and community leaders the best that we can.
Our first big step towards sharing in ministry together was our East Side Community Good Friday Tenebrae Service this year. The eight ELCA congregations of the East Side worked together to be in worship and fellowship together, to ponder God’s presence in our lives.
A couple of years ago, Arlington Hills Lutheran Church and Hope Lutheran Church joined together for a joint Good Friday evening worship service. Last year they extended an invitation to my congregation, Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, and we worshiped together at Arlington Hills. We had such a phenomenal experience sharing worship together that we decided to do so again this year, extending the invitation to all of the East Side ELCA congregations.
Our respective musically-gifted staff and lay leaders met together to plan the choir anthems and hymn selections while the clergy gathered together to review the order of worship, reading assignments, and bidding prayers. The whole process of preparation and worship was a holy time of collaboration and the Spirit guiding us together as one body.
On Good Friday evening, I watched in amazement as choir members from our eight congregations streamed in through the doors of our church to be a part of our shared choir for this special night. The energy was high as people greeted one another from their home congregations, old friends they hadn’t seen from a long time from the other congregations, and new friends that they were just becoming acquainted with. The ten clergy members of our eight congregations and members from Gustavus served as greeters and ushers.
The service was simple and elegant with musical reflections, anthems, readings, and candle-extinguishing as we journeyed with Jesus from conflict and betrayal to crucifixion and the burial in the tomb. A member from each congregation read a scripture piece of Jesus’ journey accompanied by an anthem or hymn and the extinguishing of the candles.
There were many highlights of this worship service but for me, one of my favorites, and a moment that several worshipers expressed beauty in, was the sight of the ten pastors kneeling together at the altar, each one praying one of the bidding prayers and passing the prayer book on to the next, with our prayers joining together, the whole congregation, in the Lord’s Prayer. The humbleness and simplicity of kneeling before God and beside one another as colleagues, friends, and fellow disciples brought tears to my eyes.
My colleague, the Rev. Roger Allmendinger of Arlington Hills, and other congregants mentioned the artistry and movement of our ASL interpreter Kendra as a holy moment. She has this ability to fully encompass the words, space, and meaning of worship through the fluidity of her hands and expressions.
The giftedness of the music was another highlight of collaboration: seeing the choir loft full and the lifting up of voices reverberating through the sanctuary, the talent and leadership of our music directors and organists, and the offering anthem “Tu Pab Yaj” sung in Hmong by the choir of Good Samaritan, a poignant piece that details the denial of Christ three times by Peter.
Our joint offertory gift was made for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Flowing out of our shared worship experience was our dedication to those who are currently fleeing danger and persecution as refugees and migrants. Remembering Jesus’ death at the hands of political authority and because of the sin of fear and power, we too remembered that that night, many of God’s children were living in the shadow of death. And in the shadow of the cross, we remember and acknowledge Christ’s call to us to welcome and provide hospitality, as Jesus was once a refugee himself.
At the end of worship service we departed the sanctuary in silence, gathering for fellowship in the reception hall for a time of coffee and treats. Members from each congregation had brought refreshments to share with one another for a time of community and relationship-building.
I can barely remember our fellowship time because it was such a blur of people and conversation! The whole reception hall was brimming with people sitting at tables, clustered in standing groups, moving from the dessert and coffee tables to other areas, with conversation humming across the room. The Rev. John Hierlinger, senior pastor at Gustavus Adolphus, and I were there with people till ten o’clock!
My whole heart was warmed by seeing neighbors meet neighbors, old friends from school reunite, families from our various congregations being able to worship together for one evening, and relationship-building across congregations. Truly on Good Friday we embodied what it means to be the larger church together in spirit and in practice.
Our congregation members loved the Good Friday service and time to be together. It was a great first step for us! Excitement abounds for opportunities to worship together again, to collaborate in ministry through community outreach and fellowship, and hopefulness to participate in something larger than ourselves for and with our East Side neighbors who God calls us to.
As clergy and lay leaders we are already planning for another shared worship service and opportunity for fellowship this summer. I’m excited to see what is next for our shared area ministry strategy.
Thank you for being with us on this journey in prayer, accompaniment, and shared ideas as brothers and sisters in Christ and as the Saint Paul Area Synod.
The Rev. Amanda Simons serves as associate pastor at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran in Saint Paul. She also serves on the Mission Strategy Table of the Saint Paul Area Synod and is a part of the East Side Area Ministry Strategy.