By Kate Penz, Communications Specialist
Twin Cities media outlets have focused plenty of attention on the negative impact of St. Paul’s light rail construction on University Avenue Corridor businesses during the past year. While that’s certainly true—many businesses have experienced around 50 percent reduction in revenue—congregations in the Midway/Hamline neighborhood are busier than ever.
Outreach ministries at Bethlehem Lutheran in the Midway and Zion Lutheran have experienced much more use in the past year due to the tough economy. While light rail construction has made it more challenging to access relief services in the Hamline/Midway area for some, people overcome the sometimes treacherous roads, sidewalks, and public transportation to get the help they need.
The pastors in these congregations are more concerned with the light rail’s long-term impact on low-income housing and property taxes than they are with the current obstacles its construction presents. Nearly 75 percent of housing in the Midway neighborhood is rental and 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, statistics that cause faith leaders to worry about how the light rail changes will impact the most vulnerable.
“Many of the people in this neighborhood recently moved off the street into apartments. What’s going to happen to them if low-income housing isn’t preserved? What about those who have lived here for 30 years and will no longer be able to afford the property tax on their homes?” said the Rev. Joy Johnson, senior pastor at Bethlehem in the Midway. “We have been involved in the conversation. We want to make sure people are protected.”
Offering protection from hunger
Bethlehem in the Midway’s outreach ministries are working to protect the poor. Each Monday a crowd waits outside of the church for its food and clothing ministry, Open Hands Midway, to open. Before the doors are unlocked, volunteers put the finishing touches on the meal and make sure the produce, clothing, and household items are in place. At 10:55 a.m. they form a circle around the food and the Rev. Steve Slostad, part-time outreach pastor at Bethlehem in the Midway, leads the group in prayer. For a moment all is quiet before the doors open to fill the hallway with a rush of people and noise.
Bethlehem in the Midway is located one block from the intersection of Snelling and University Avenues, the busiest intersection in Minnesota and home to a major Metro Transit station. The church’s location positions it well to receive people in need from the diverse Hamline/Midway neighborhood.
“On Mondays, we do church differently,” said Slostad. “We accept people how they are—mentally ill, chemically dependent, whatever it might be. We try to be Christ for them.”
While some food programs and shelters set rules and restrictions, Open Hands Midway operates based on the 85/15 percent rule. “If we try to police the 15 percent who abuse the services, we won’t be able to serve the 85 percent who genuinely need the help,” said Slostad.
Since January, Open Hands Midway has served over 15,000 meals, given away over 7,000 bags of clothes, some 1,800 pairs of shoes, nearly 900 coats, more than 440 blankets, and almost 800 boxes of household items.
Open Hands Midway has been busy since it was organized in 2009 as a street ministry to engage the neighborhood and to meet the physical and emotional needs of the poor. Volunteers serve meals to around 250 people per week, twice per week during the summer. They organize the clothing, household items, and groceries received from partner congregations and Second Harvest Heartland. Each week nurses are on hand to perform blood pressure checks and answer health questions. During the summer they set up in the church parking lot, but when the temperature drops, the church’s lower level serves as the meeting space. Every third Saturday throughout the year American Bank, across Snelling Avenue, allows Open Hands Midway to use its lot for its street ministry. Volunteers serve a meal, hand out clothes, and offer to pray for people passing from Minneapolis to St. Paul.
In addition, on Saturdays the congregation runs a youth program for children age four to twelve staffed by volunteers and youth groups from partner congregations. In the summer the program increases to four days per week.
Open door, no exceptions
A few blocks north, Zion Lutheran’s growing outreach ministry, Feeding Faith, is a part of its larger effort to be intentional about connecting with the neighborhood. Six years ago the congregation called the Rev. Nirmala Reinschmidt and asked her to lead them in outreach ministry. Reinschmidt encouraged the congregation to open its doors to the community, and now Zion hosts everything from homework help on Tuesday evenings to family birthday parties, and it won’t turn away a funeral.
“Families who have lost a loved one are already hurting. The least we can do is provide the service and meal; we try to make this difficult time easier, regardless of whether they are already connected to the congregation,” said Reinschmidt.
Through Feeding Faith, Zion serves a meal and offers direct food relief on Thursday afternoons. On Thursday mornings, volunteers drive to Hope for the City in St. Louis Park to pick up food to bring back to Zion to be separated into about 60 grocery bags before welcoming visitors for prayer, meal, and conversation, sending visitors home with a bag of groceries.
A few years ago, the average worshiping attendance at Zion was around 25 people. Now it has doubled in size, welcoming ten new families that have started to attend since learning about Zion through its outreach efforts.
“I am so grateful for the leadership here. I bring ideas and I’m never told ‘we don’t have money for that,’” said Reinschmidt. “God provides. We are connecting with the community. When people come here they are told that we are here to love them. We don’t have an agenda.”
At first Barb Shaner, member at Zion and Feeding Faith volunteer, wasn’t sure how to interact with the people coming on Thursdays—most are unchurched or haven’t been involved in a church for many years, some are living on the street, and others are first-generation immigrants, non-English speaking, or come from different racial and cultural backgrounds.
“I was nervous about how I would relate to them,” said Shaner. “Then Pastor Nirmala told me all I have to do is love them.”
Shaner greets everyone who walks through the door with a hug. She asks people to sign in, a list she takes home to study, and she calls them by name when they return the next week. The community shares one another’s joy and learns about the challenges each person is facing.
“Last week a young man from Venezuela told me he missed his family, whom he hasn’t seen for two years. I told him that we are his family too and I invited him back,” said Reinschmidt. He has returned each week to volunteer, offering to help the older women unload food from the truck.
“Today my prayer was answered,” said Mary, a woman who visits Feeding Faith every week. “I went to the grocery store and had to choose between cereal and milk because I didn’t have money for both. I bought cereal, and when I got to Zion, Barb asked me if I could use a gallon of milk. Each week my prayers are answered in some way when I come to Feeding Faith, but today it was a specific prayer!”
‘Service keeps us vibrant’
Open Hands Midway and Feeding Faith are supported by partner congregations, companies, and organizations. Each rely on outside support to keep their programs running. Often, volunteers from suburban congregations come to experience what outreach ministry in the city is all about.
Once a month a group of seniors from Our Savior’s Lutheran in Stillwater volunteers at Open Hands Midway. “We are more blessed by the time we spend volunteering than the people coming in for the services,” said the Rev. Keith Lentz, retired pastor and member of Our Savior’s. “We learn about ourselves and are given the chance to see God in the other. Service keeps us vibrant.”
“This is what it’s all about,” said Dave Shaw, member of Our Savior’s. He and his wife retired early and have made a commitment to service. They have traveled with various missions all over the world, but have learned they don’t have to go far to serve. (See the box to read Shaw’s poem.)
“I won’t do anything unless I feel joy in my heart about it,” said Carol Johnson, Zion member and volunteer at Feeding Faith. “I went from being away from the church for many years, and now I spend much of my time volunteering on committees and outreach with Zion, and I have a lot of joy.”
God’s work is being done through the ministries in the Hamline/Midway neighborhood. The programs at Bethlehem in the Midway and Zion are not just serving the poor; they are providing light and life to the congregations and people involved on both ends.
“We believe love changes people,” said Slostad. “With love, God makes all things possible.”