Lee Blons was “an outsider” when she moved to the Twin Cities for college. Now firmly rooted, she’s readying to move forward without the partner who bolstered her remarkable transition.
The Rev. Jim Gertmenian retires Jan. 25 and heads East. His legacy will endure as a pastor, risk taker and bridge builder and, say many, the perfect complement to Lee in the fight to end homelessness.
“She’s thorough, smart, collegial, strategic,” says Jim. “Maybe there’s someone in the universe who could do this work as well as Lee, but I’d be hard-pressed to pick who that would be.”
Lee, whose blood type is community activism, is equally affirming.
“Jim brings deep spirituality,” she says. “He’s the reason it works.”
In 12 years together, he as senior minister of Plymouth Congregational Church and she as executive director of the church’s offshoot, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, they’ve recruited 70 congregations to share their work. Their fight for justice has led at times to personal fallout.
In 2002, church leaders envisioned transforming an old nursing home across their street into affordable housing for people with mental illness, chemical dependency and HIV-AIDS. Alarmed neighbors picketed Jim’s services every Sunday for a year. The church was taken to court twice, and had to appeal to the Minneapolis City Council for variances.
Forty-unit Lydia Apartments opened in 2003, just as Lee was joining Beacon, then called the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation.
“I got to come for the party,” she says with a laugh.
She stayed. Lee grew up in Cleveland, the daughter of social workers. Faith, Lee says, “was a big part of my parents’ motivation.” She attended Carleton College and studied with Paul Wellstone.
Jim grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and helped paint a church in Watts after the infamous riots.
“All then seemed to come into focus.”
Jim has taught Lee, 54, how to temper her desire to win.
“I’m a former jock,” she says. “Jim would say, ‘It’s not about winning. It’s about securing justice.’ ”
Lee has taught Jim, 65, about tax credits, zoning and how to rise above politics. Together they’ve attended board meetings and protests, worship services and fundraisers and, best of all, groundbreakings. Beacon was just awarded an $8 million grant for youth housing on the Green Line in St. Paul.
“I’d get scared by the sheer complexity of things,” Jim muses. “And then I remembered that Lee knows how to do this, and it didn’t scare me as much.”