Easter season has arrived at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which means it’s about to witness four resurrections.
The first service at the south Minneapolis church draws an older, white congregation singing contemporary hymns and enjoying a short, upbeat sermon. The pews return to life about 11:30 a.m., when an Oromo-speaking congregation arrives for two hours of hot music and a faith healer with trembling participants.
A Spanish-speaking Baptist congregation moves in next, bringing a foot-washing ceremony and a musician who plays a guitar made from an armadillo with his teeth. Sometimes a fourth congregation revives the sanctuary early evening, this time an Ethiopian group worshiping in the Amharic language.
While Easter season is busy for most Minnesota churches, St. Paul’s may set the record for sheer diversity of worship.
“Any time you’ve got this many cultures, and this many people, moving through one building in one day — and you throw in a bunch of kids and piñatas — it’s bound to be blessed chaos,” joked Pastor Roland Wells.
“We’re a busy place,” added Wells.
His church not only hosts diverse congregations, but it has carved an unusual niche running a training institute for cross-cultural ministry and supporting missionaries across the globe.
Depending on the hour, its halls could be occupied by a group of African women in floor-length white dresses, young Mexican boys scampering by in black pants and dress shirts, or a cluster of Minnesota-born elders wearing wide smiles.
St. Paul’s, just south of downtown Minneapolis, has always been an immigrant church, said Wells. Founded 143 years ago, it was a thriving Norwegian congregation that once shared its building with Swedish immigrants. But like many central-city churches, it faced an exodus of members to the suburbs over the years. Standing in the epicenter of the city’s 1980s crack epidemic didn’t help.
“I could look out my window and watch drug deals 22 hours a day,” Wells recalled.
But a funny thing happened. Smaller membership “freed the congregation” to try new things, said Wells. And because of its central-city location at E. 19th St. and Portland Av. S., immigrant groups came knocking. The church began a different kind of resurrection. It is now a Sunday destination for Christians of multiple groups from across the Twin Cities and beyond.
“Now the world has come to us,” marvels Wells.
Hallelujah times four
Wells presides over the 9:15 Sunday service, where he shares the altar area with musicians playing guitars and conga drums. Last week, he delivered a Palm Sunday sermon comparing the crowds who met Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem to the throngs who awaited the Minnesota Twins after they won the World Series. The Minnesota analogy reflected the congregation demographics: a mix of neighborhood residents, Scandinavian Lutherans and retired missionaries.
After the service, folks gathered for conversation near a so-called Missionary Wall, adorned with letters and photos from missionary friends serving in China, Ukraine, Kenya and beyond.
“A diamond is a good image for our church,” said Janet French, a former missionary in Japan talking with friends. “It can be cut in many ways, and they are all beautiful.”
Meanwhile, the harmonies of the Oromo choir, rehearsing for the next service, began to fill the halls. By 11:30 a.m., the sanctuary was packed with about 250 immigrants from Ethiopia, and the overhead screen read “Ebenezer Oromo Evangelical Lutheran Church.”
Pastor Challa Baro welcomed the Oromo-speaking congregation, and the service began with the rhythms of East African music and parishioners swaying and praying in the pews.
A fiery preacher, Bizunesh Emiru, was the speaker of the day. During an intense ritual, she proceeded to heal the sick and “cast out evil spirits” from distressed worshipers who had lined up before her. They dropped to the floor and trembled after she angrily commanded the spirits to leave.
“You cannot withstand the power of God!” she yelled.
The impassioned drama ended as the clock approached 2 p.m. Even as the Africans headed out the door, the sweet notes of a tiny Andean guitar could be heard in the background, as two visiting Bolivian musicians rehearsed a few numbers for the next service about to begin.
The overhead screen changed, this time to “Iglesia Centro Cristiano de Mpls. Bienvenido” — or “Central Christian Church of Minneapolis. Welcome.”
This was a more traditional Christian Sunday worship, with several gospel readings and a sermon focused the Christian Holy Week. Pastor Joel Ramirez asked this small congregation to imagine themselves in Jerusalem when Judas betrayed Jesus. “Do they stand in the background, scared? Or defend Jesus? What does that say about their faith?” he asked.
During the service, about a dozen people walked up to the altar, where they washed the feet of a fellow parishioner. The ceremony was accompanied by traditional music of South America and Mexico.
The service ended about 4 p.m., when everyone headed downstairs to the cafeteria for a meal of burritos, rice, beans, salad and dessert.
Even as the cooks were cleaning up, members of the “Every Tribe and Tongue” church began drifting into the sanctuary for a 6 p.m. service — a small, loosely organized worship headed by the Ethiopian minister Destaye Crawford.
Somehow it works
Despite their different languages and worship formats, the congregations here say somehow it all works. There’s a mutual respect, and learning, that goes on Sundays and during the week, they said.
“We aren’t just using the building, we are blended,” said Ramirez, the first to launch a congregation at St. Paul’s more than a decade ago. “We bring our time and talent, with a similar focus.”
They also bring their people. The Oromo group, for example, draws the faithful from as far as Mankato, Woodbury and Blaine, said Baro, because there’s nothing like it where they live.
Crawford is the newest arrival, understanding from the get-go that the sanctuary was booked most of Sunday. Her solution: Welcome members midweek and hold the weekly service mostly on Friday nights.
“There’s nothing in the Bible that says we need to worship on Sundays,” Crawford said with a smile. “Hey, we live in America. We can enjoy the freedom.”
Keeping track of which congregation is using what room, at what time, can be a challenge. A large wall calendar directs visitors to the various choir rehearsals, educational groups, social gatherings and more. And each minister has an office to call home, albeit in Crawford’s case it’s a desk in St. Paul’s religious education room.
In exchange for using church facilities, the congregations are asked to contribute as they comfortably can, said Wells. That has brought some extra revenue for St. Paul’s.
As if hosting four congregations weren’t enough, St. Paul’s also runs a “Mission Shift” institute that offers cross-cultural training for Christians hoping to spread God’s word, as well as college-accredited classes on urban and cultural issues.
To see so many new faces inside one of Minneapolis’ oldest churches is remarkable, say longtime St. Paul’s members.
Said Wells: “The Bible says that in the end, there will be every tribe and nation worshiping God together. We’ve got a taste of that here.”