Only a tiny sign alerts visitors that they're entering the headquarters for Christ's Household of Faith, a religious commune in the heart of St. Paul.

Sharing their work, wealth and their mission to honor God on Earth for 45 years, the nearly 500 members form one of the oldest Christian communities in the nation. Their schoolchildren win top awards in academics and athletics. Their businesses, including a high-end kitchen remodeler, are known statewide.

But the outside world came crashing down late last year, when Christ's Household filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At risk are the 30-plus houses that are home to most members. The financial pressure looms even as the group's spiritual director, 84-year-old Don Alsbury, is slowing down.

Yet Alsbury and others insist their worldly problems will be resolved.

Christ's Household has survived bigger challenges, he said, such as when his earliest followers in the town of Mora sold their homes and possessions, pooled their money, and waited for the second coming of Jesus. When that didn't happen, the group had to scramble to find a new home and new life — which landed them in St. Paul in 1971.

"When I asked the congregation, 'How many of you are anxious about this [bankruptcy]?' a couple hands went up," Alsbury said. "They believe … God is keeping us.

"We experience miracles."

Luther, dreams, miracles

Walk into the group's chapel off Marshall Avenue and the folks in the pews look like the faithful at any Minnesota church: lots of middle-aged parents, a smattering of high school students and elderly people singing hymns from an old Lutheran hymnbook and listening to gospel readings.

But this service also included testimonials. A woman took the microphone and shared her fear of being unprepared for judgment day, of demons and a horrifying dream. Another said she couldn't shake her fear that her deceased father, a former member, hadn't been saved.

In the back sat Alsbury, with a microphone to interject as needed. He has been prophet, spiritual adviser, father figure, disciplinarian and supreme leader of the community for 45 years.

The man leading the service, school band director Aaron Isakson, acknowledged that joining the church took a leap of faith. His occurred 20 years ago after meeting his future wife, a church member, at the University of Minnesota when they were both students.

Isakson said he's overheard conversations at community events where people describe Christ's Household as a "cult" that one "can never ever leave."

"I try to deal with it by explaining to people that my daily life is much like theirs," he said. "You see our basketball scores on TV at night. You see our band in contests. You see our students at speech meets. We're not exactly hiding."

One big difference sets this church apart. Everyone in the pews — the teachers, coaches, carpenters, electricians and stay-at-home moms — give their labor to the church for free. Most work at the dozen businesses owned and operated by the church. Profits are cycled through the community to support the businesses, the school — its biggest expense — and the housing, vehicles and basic needs of about 200 children and 270 adults.

The inspiration for the commune, said Alsbury, was not some hippie idea of a classless society. It was how the Bible says the earliest followers of Jesus' apostles lived, he said, referring to Acts 4: 32-35.

"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. … For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need."

Melding that 2,000-year-old practice with the 21st century is the challenge of Christ's Household of Faith today. Christian communes have long been part of America's religious landscape, including the Shakers, the Amana colonies in Iowa, and Bethany Fellowship of Minneapolis in the 1940s. Most have come and gone.

Christ's Household stands out because it's smack in the middle of a city, not a rural farm community, said Mark Granquist, an associate professor of Christian history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

"It's a lot easier to keep the world out if you're in an isolated rural area," he said.

Christ's Household was shaped by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which ordained all four founding, now aging, ministers — Alsbury, Vernon Harms, Art Palenschat and Paul Otten.

Followers believe the Bible is literally God's word, and the dreams, demons and miracles described in it continue today. They must repent and be "born again" in spirit to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Pray, work, study

Nicole Strandlund was among the Christ's Household parents and kids yelling "Go Blue" from the bleachers at a recent high school basketball game. Strandlund was 3 years old when her parents joined the community, for awhile living in one of the apartments in the complex that also houses the school. She recalls the families cooking and eating together and developing close ties.

Now 48, Strandlund is the mother of 10, including a son on the basketball court. Like other women here, she relies on God to determine birth control. She admits that a house full of kids has its challenges, but having so many community members in nearby apartments — and her own mother less than a mile away — lightened the load.

"There was always someone to call," she said. "It would be like, 'I'm sick today.' Another mom would say: 'Bring the kids over and play in the yard.' "

In the summer, many kids work on the community's organic farm near Marine on St. Croix. Families head to their old resort for summer Bible camps, water skiing and fun.

With just four of her children still in school, Strandlund now moonlights as a house cleaner a couple nights a week to earn money beyond the $16 a week that members receive. Members with outside jobs give much of their earnings to the community chest. The "domestic services" performed by all members totaled more than $500,000 in 2015, according to court documents.

Strandlund's husband works at North Star Remodeling. Her son, a senior on the basketball team, is interning at different church businesses to see which is the best fit after graduation. A daughter a year younger is preparing for a History Day competition, plays the flute in the school band, "and speech [competition] starts soon."

"They're busy kids," she said.

Thrift is key

Supporting nearly 500 people demands thrifty living. Most families live in apartment homes with several other families. The 200 community cars listed in bankruptcy papers typically were bought at dealer auctions and show more than 100,000 miles.

Most babies are born at home with a community midwife. A retired dentist provides free teeth cleaning and checkups. Hair is cut at home. Produce in refrigerators is grown on the farm. Appliances are often from the scratch-and-dent section of stores.

Alsbury's new stainless steel refrigerator, for example, has a wooden strip on the door tastefully concealing the dent that gave it a discount. His wife, Marian, also standing in the kitchen, said she and other seniors are regulars at the YMCA, thanks to the SilverSneakers discount.

All work and play is cast aside on Sunday, when members pour into the school auditorium for a daylong religious service that can last until sunset.

Early controversy

Not all is harmony. Over the years, the church has been involved in some high-profile disputes. In the 1980s and 1990s, newspaper stories carried allegations that children suffered severe beatings.

In 2010 the Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered Christ's Household to pay $235,000 in child support to a mother of 10 children after a 20-year court battle. In 2005, a U.S. District Court ordered the group to pay nearly $2 million in a copyright infringement case involving software developed by the husband of a former member.

David Glasband, a member during the early years of 1970 to 1980, is among the group's long-standing critics. He argues that Christ's Household has left a trail of damaged children — now adults — scarred by guilt and "systematic abuse during their formative years."

He said he spent years thinking he was doomed to hell after he left following a divorce and was excommunicated.

"I still feel anger and hurt," said Glasband, now a contractor in California. But there's a paradox, he said.

"Some of the nicest people I've ever met live there," he said. "All the people you love in that place — you can't talk to them. It broke my heart."

The firstborn

Alsbury, who now walks with a cane, says he has mellowed over the years. Like a parent with many children, the firstborn have a different experience from the rest. Women and girls, once required to wear ankle-length skirts circa the 1900s, now dress like the rest of the world. Corporal punishment isn't the same.

That said, Alsbury defends corporal punishment of schoolchildren in the 1970s, saying other schools were doing the same. And he still doesn't think the church should pay child support because it violates its religious freedom.

Alsbury stresses that no one is forced to stay. About half the school's graduates eventually leave. That includes some of the now-adult children of the founding ministers. It's a source of deep pain, but Alsbury said that those who are chosen by God will stay.

What's at stake

The future of those who stay is now up to a U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Christ's Household filed for Chapter 11 in December to reorganize its finances after an estimated $11 million in bank loans was sold to a private equity firm that then moved to foreclose on its housing properties.

According to Alsbury, the school complex on Marshall Avenue was not used as collateral. Nor was the organic farm or the old resort.

At risk are the 32 houses, with 56 dwellings, that are the homes to families. Those families are basically the sole employees of the businesses — the economic engines of the commune — and the entire staff at school. One commercial property is also at risk, court documents show.

Christ's Household claimed $12.9 million in assets in bankruptcy filings and $12.1 million in liabilities, of which $11.9 million is owed to Lone Star Real Estate Funds II, known as LSREF2 Cobalt, a Texas-based firm that bought their loans.

Although the group's financial organization was derided by Lone Star as "financial osmosis" in court filings, it is not unique. There have been enough religious communes to warrant a separate tax classification — 501(d).

Alsbury blames the bankruptcy on the sale of the loans. He believes Christ's Household has been fiscally responsible — at least historically.

It's one reason this Christian community has beat the odds, holding on for nearly a half-century. Alsbury, however, said he didn't have a clue it would endure when he started it in the 1960s.

"I never intended to build a commune," said Alsbury. "It was all about the glory of God."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511