As the pastor of First Lutheran Church in St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, I am reluctant to comment publicly on matters of political controversy. But after reading the March 12 commentary by St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince (“Church should help homeless, but what about neighbors?”), I feel compelled to set the record straight.
The picture that Prince gives of our church’s activities in support of people experiencing homelessness and poverty, as well as of our interactions with the surrounding community, are misleading in at least three ways.
First, she suggests that our church is “[flouting] city regulations and battling the neighbors with its lawyers and in the media.” This is patently false. In fact, the very first action we took after agreeing to host Listening House was to approach the city and seek any necessary approvals. As an act of good faith and without the advice of counsel, we applied for, and were granted, a similar-use permit allowing us to proceed. Since then, we have dutifully complied with all city zoning laws and procedures, including appearing before the Planning Commission and the City Council. Only recently have we retained a law firm that agreed to represent us pro bono. To date, we have filed no legal claims against the city, and we continue to work constructively to find a mutually agreeable solution that respects the interests of all parties.
Second, Prince portrays the “neighbors” as a monolithic bloc united in opposition to the activities of First Lutheran and Listening House. In fact, those opposing our activities represent only a small fraction of our surrounding community in Dayton’s Bluff. The only formal body representing the neighborhood — the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council — has even expressed its support for the activities of Listening House and First Lutheran. I would also add that the “neighbors” include the many people who live in the area and come to Listening House every day.
Finally, Prince suggests that we are indifferent to the concerns expressed by some of our neighbors about the impacts of our guests on the neighborhood’s quality of life. To the contrary, we respect the legitimate concerns expressed by all of our neighbors, and we have worked diligently along with Listening House to minimize the negative effects on our surrounding community, including by cooperating with law enforcement, imposing restrictions on the hours of operation and participating in good faith in discussions to mediate our points of disagreement.
As the leader of our church, I can assure you that we will continue to address our neighbors’ legitimate concerns in a spirit of “humility, healing and shared purpose,” while also honoring our church’s longstanding, faith-based commitment to minister to those most in need. As a community center for those experiencing poverty, Listening House provides a vital service all too rare in today’s society — affirming every day that “a soul is a soul.” This basic truth can be a painful and uncomfortable one to reckon with. But as a matter of faith, we feel it is our duty, and privilege, to live out that belief and to wrestle with it in order to live together with all who come our way in search of help.
Chris Olson Bingea is pastor at First Lutheran Church in St. Paul.