The wood floors need refinishing. Pew cushions need upholstering. Furniture needs updating.
“When my ship comes in,” Senior Pastor Roland Wells said pensively as he walked the halls of St. Paul’s Church in the Phillips/Ventura Village neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Then he grinned. Wells knows his ship came in long ago.
Moving into his 26th year as spiritual leader of the granite church at 19th Street and Portland Avenue S., Wells has found his calling in an urban congregation that has much to celebrate. And celebrate it will, beginning this month.
That the Lutheran church is marking its golden jubilee doesn’t set it apart from many churches reaching the 50-year milestone. But its back story surely does.
On March 22, 1964, church members hailing from as far away as Plymouth and Bloomington marched eight blocks from their previous location on 14th Avenue to reclaim the once pigeon-infested building with shattered stained glass and outdated wiring.
They came refusing to abandon the urban core for the suburbs, where many other churches were headed. This is where they were needed most.
Today, St. Paul’s houses four culturally diverse congregations, as well as an internationally recognized missionary training program called the MissionShift Institute and an urban studies program doing cross-cultural outreach.
Especially rewarding to Wells is that St. Paul’s, which is affiliated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, is a reliable partner in a revitalizing neighborhood where more than 100 languages are spoken.
“We stay out of politics,” said Wells, who came to St. Paul’s at age 35 and thought he’d stay two or three years. He’s 61 now.
“Our mission is taking care of people,” he said. “It’s looking at the needs of our neighbors and helping them meet those needs.”
That effort began more than 50 years ago. In 1957, church members learned that the projected I-94 freeway would raze their current building. Hundreds of city-based congregations were moving to the suburbs. They decided not to.
Members took one look at the once majestic First Presbyterian Church on Portland Avenue, built by families including the Daytons, and saw possibilities. They bought the building for $75,000, then pumped $250,000 more into it to spruce it up, bring it up to code and add a new level inside the former atrium.
Today, the church is recognized architecturally, Wells said, as among the most outstanding Richardsonian Romanesque churches in the region. But what takes place inside matters most to him.
On any given Sunday, the pews fill up with separate services run by partner congregations from growing immigrant communities, including Iglesia Centro Cristiano de Minneapolis and Ebenezer Oromo Evangelical Church. The sanctuary is adorned with 52 richly colored flags representing members’ home countries, as well as countries where members have served as missionaries.
The roots of that outreach began in the late 1980s, when Wells created programming for youngsters within the Southeast Asian community who were filling up his Sunday school classrooms.
But he quickly realized another pressing challenge. The 1990s were the height of the drug wars, “and our corner was often the worst crack street in the city,” Wells said. He still can point to bullet holes, including one piercing a stained-glass window.
It doesn’t surprise him that others bolted.
“I’ve seen hundreds of people come into the neighborhood to make a difference and, in 18 months, they’re gone,” Wells said. “They didn’t do their homework,” he said. They didn’t understand the toll poverty, mental illness or chemical dependency can take, nor the significance of history and culture.
“The complexity of the neighborhood,” he said, “can be overwhelming.”
Longtime members have chosen St. Paul’s, not despite that reality, but because of it.
Judy Grommes, of Columbia Heights, has been a member since 2001, learning about the church from her son-in-law, who is pastor of Iglesia Centro Cristiano. She connected immediately with the church’s commitment to scripture and its willingness “to reach out to all those around them.”
Misrak Adoga, of Ethiopia, has worked as Wells’ secretary since 2001. “He has a big heart for immigrants,” she said. Hal Biel and his wife, Cheryl, were searching for a better spiritual fit when they joined St. Paul’s in 1982. They drive from Plymouth. Hal has served as church president. Cheryl sings in the choir. In 2009, the couple took a round-the-world trip to learn about the church’s international ministry work.
They’ll all be celebrating the jubilee, which begins with an evening concert March 23, a re-enactment of the historic march on Palm Sunday and a global worship celebrating world music on May 4. (For details, go to www.stpaulschurch.info).
“Our worship is very simple,” Wells said. “We’re not fancy, we’re not rich. We get the job done.”
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