Love Grows Here

For most of its existence, First Lutheran Church served as a place of worship for those Scandinavian immigrants and their descendents living in a section of Saint Paul designated “Swede Hollow.”  Established in the mid-nineteenth century (1854), First Lutheran, located near the intersection of East 7th Street and Maria Avenue at 463 Maria, now seeks to meet the needs of what has become a multi-racial, multi-ethnic community composed of people with widely diverse backgrounds and equally diverse income levels.  The label “Swede Hollow” says more about the area’s past than it does about the current residents of the neighborhood or the current make-up of the congregation.

                Roughly three years ago, faced with a dwindling, aging membership and confronted by the changing composition of the area, First Lutheran’s leadership council initiated a course of action designed to transform the church so as to better address the needs of people in the immediate surrounding community as well as the needs of those in the greater Twin City metropolitan area.  Several members ofVoices for Change are actively involved in supporting the churches efforts.  An early key element of this effort toward transformation involved First Lutheran’s decision to reject a seven-figure offer from a real estate developer seeking to purchase an island camp long owned by the church.  Rather that sell its valuable property, the church council launched an extensive renovation of the facilities at its campgrounds on Bay Lake Island.

Camp director Brenda Olson oversaw renovations that include building the fully air conditioned and heated Red Cedar Lodge, remodeling cabins and staff quarters, and constructing a winterized kitchen and dining hall.  The renovated Bay Lake Camp now functions as a year-round facility that should provide some additional revenue for church programs.  When not reserved by an outside group, Bay Lake Camp affords church members and supporters an occasional retreat from the pressures of urban life.  The camp recently hosted a retreat for the Saint Paul Police’s Homeless Outreach Project, thereby providing much needed stress relief for all concerned.

                Within the city, First Lutheran’s current Pastors, with the support of the church’s leadership council, have embraced the doctrine “love grows here” as a way of announcing that the church welcomes anyone who seeks to worship or is in need of support.  Christine Berthelsen, First Lutheran’s Pastor of Spiritual Formation and Nurture, advocates and practices extending a “radical welcome” to newcomers.  A red-lettered banner above the church’s side door proclaims “ALL ARE WELCOME” and Pastor Chris extends the warmth, understanding and acceptance of this radical welcome regardless of race, sexual orientation, ethnicity or income.

                First Lutheran has long operated a weekly food shelf that serves the working poor and other members of the community.  For more than a year, the Church has provided a Sunday morning community breakfast at 8:00 a.m. that is open to all comers.  This year, the chruch started it own community vegetable garden. In addition to providing food and a welcoming, accepting attitude, First Lutheran has plans to open a drop-in center aimed at providing continuing support for those transitioning out of homelessness.

                Pastor Luis Alvarenga, First Lutheran’s Pastor of Transformation and Outreach, has, in addition to establishing connections among the Hispanic, the African-American and the Hmong communities, founded a multimedia collaborative that includes several members of Voices for Change as producers and camera operators.  The Church’s worship service airs every Sunday morning at 10:30 am on cable access station SPNN.  Voices for Change member Ralph Olson produces a program also aired on SPNN that broadcast Mondays at 9:30 pm and Thursdays at 10:30 pm.  ‘Voices/Homelessness’ examines, though an interview format, the various programs designed to address problems related to indigence and homelessness.  Pastor Luis, who recently observed his one-year anniversary at First Lutheran, is developing a Spanish language radio program on KFAI, working to develop an interactive web presence for the church and generally working to help adapt the First Lutheran to its current circumstances while continuing to minister to those who make up the church’s traditional membership.

                Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once lamented that attending a Sunday morning church service remained among the most racially and ethnically segregated experiences a person could have.  On any given Sunday, at First Lutheran, one is certain to find people of all walks of life.  The recovering addict on general assistance worships along with the retired bank vice-president and the active duty police officer.  As the sign says:  ALL ARE WELCOME.  Moreover, all are appreciated and encouraged to work with others to address the problems confronting fellow members of the congregation and the community at large. 

                                                                                                 

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