Eight years ago, the council of First Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minn., posed a question: "Does love live here?"
To find an answer, the congregation offered Sunday morning breakfast conversations, not only for members but for people in the neighborhood. As attendance grew, the breakfasts morphed into the current Thursday evening meal and Love Grows Here Wellness Center.
The core of the wellness center is collaboration, said director Allie Tunseth. The church sits in what is now a poor area of the city. While unable to financially support a holistic wellness ministry on its own, the congregation formed creative partnerships with organizations that provide services. Everyone wins.
First provides rent-free office space to the Dayton's Bluff Block Nurse program, which helps neighborhood seniors remain in their homes. By supporting this program, the church assists the area's elderly in a way it couldn't do directly.
And there are others:
• The church houses Ministering Angels Clothes Closet at no charge. From it, jobless or homeless individuals who come to the Thursday evening wellness center receive clothing and household items.
• The Metropolitan State University Public Health Nurse program sends students to the center for their practicum. Under supervision, they offer blood pressure checks, foot care, health teaching and referrals.
• Walk-In Counseling provides professional counselors.
• St. Paul Community Education offers classes such as cooking and rebounding from job loss.
Massage and alternative healing techniques are also available. And employers come to interview.
There is also pastoral care for those who want it. Christine Berthelsen, pastor of First, has a job description that includes "the freedom to try new things and help [the congregation] walk gracefully through them." She aimed for a revitalization of people's connection to the gospel and the call to go out rather than remain behind walls.
Scandinavians loosen up
Change isn't new at First. While its website (www.lovegrowshere.net) still announces its location as "the historic Swede Hollow neighborhood of St. Paul," the area has changed over the decades.
Nearly half a century ago, the neighborhood's familiar Scandinavian makeup was already giving way to an influx of unfamiliar ethnicities. The congregation considered moving but decided First was called to stay and minister in the old neighborhood.
Getting normally reserved Scandinavians to loosen up and be gregarious with strangers is no easy task, but the Sunday morning passing of the peace now takes some time. People are learning to be less afraid of "the other," Berthelsen said.
The crux of the wellness center is lack of distinction between volunteers and clients. Each person wears the same kind of name tag. All eat and visit together. "Everyone has a story," Tunseth said. "People who live a marginalized existence often don't have the opportunity to share theirs."
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© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers