The first tenants have started moving into the Center for Changing Lives in Minneapolis, the culmination of a dream for Lutheran Social Service and the end of a nightmare for some of the new residents.

The $27 million project -- seven times the cost of any of the agency's former projects -- combines affordable housing with job training, financial services, mental health support, after-school services for children and even an in-house church (not to mention an indoor basketball court).

One of the first to move in was Cheryl Barney, who retired from Honeywell after 30 years to raise her five grandchildren, who range in age from 2 to 8. While she appreciates that Lutheran Social Service built the four-bedroom apartment, she gives credit for its presence to a higher power.

"God gave us a new home," she said. "I prayed over this a lot. I'm so amazed [at the apartment]. I'm in awe."

Last fall, Barney ran out of options as far as her grandchildren were concerned. "They were in different foster homes," she said. "I either had to take them or have them put up for adoption."

She rented a home in north Minneapolis, but between the $1,200 a month rent and another $700 for utilities, she was barely getting by. Her new arrangement, $960 for rent and having to pay only for electricity, has buoyed her spirits.

"I won't kid you; there were times [in her old place] when I would just have to sit and cry," she said. "To be able to find such a nice home. ... " She shook her head and looked around the living room.

Mark Peterson, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Service, spent much of this week proudly leading tours of the facility, which was built on the site of the agency's old office building at 2400 Park Av. S. The complex is being occupied in phases as finishing work is completed, with the entire facility expected to be operating by mid-November.

"We built this to last at least three generations," Peterson said. "We have a vision statement that says, 'All people have the opportunity to live and work in community with dignity, safety and hope.' This building is the physical expression of that saying."

In addition to the church, the building includes two Muslim prayer rooms.

"We're not just for Lutherans," he said. "We serve the people in our community of all faiths. I think we're the only facility in the United States that includes a Lutheran sanctuary and Muslim prayer rooms. We might be the only one in the world. I know darn sure that we're the only one in Minnesota."

The write stuff

Nearly 125 Christian authors will be signing books from 1 to 3 p.m. today at the Mall of America as part of the 2008 American Christian Fiction Writers conference.

The convention started Thursday and concludes Sunday at the Sheraton Bloomington Hotel. Although the mass book signing has been a part of the annual conferences for years, this is the first time it's being held off-site.

Organizers are expecting quite a crowd -- of writers, to say nothing of their fans. Each writer will be stationed at a small table, with the line starting in the main rotunda on the east side of the mall and stretching all the way down the hall to the Sears rotunda.

Two Minnesota writers will take part in the event: Jill Elizabeth Nelson, author of the "Reluctant" series ("Reluctant Smuggler," "Reluctant Runaway" and "Reluctant Burglar"), and Sharon Hinck, whose "Stepping Into Sunlight" is being released for the signing event. Both are looking forward to the chance to connect with local readers.

"I'm excited by the impact this event can have to generate awareness in the community about the value of the art form of faith-based novels," Hinck said. "Plus, I just love meeting people, signing books and talking about stories we love."

Books will be for sale, but you're welcome to bring ones you already own.

Talking faith

The annual Faith & Life Lecture Series kicks off next week with a familiar face -- to those who watch TV, anyway.

Dr. Timothy Johnson, who reports on medical issues for ABC News and is an ordained minister, will launch this year's programming with a speech titled "Faith and Finding God in the Questions: My Personal Journey of Faith."

The event begins at 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church, 17205 County Rd. 6, Plymouth. Admission is free. For more information and a list of all the year's speakers, go to

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392