Each Monday morning, workers at Westminster Presbyterian Church cover up the religious imagery inside a few Sunday school classrooms to create a more welcoming space for their weekday occupants — young children of diverse faiths receiving group therapy.

An entire section of this landmark church building in downtown Minneapolis now houses a child health and development facility. Walk the hallways and you'll find children getting speech therapy, physical therapy, mental health assessments and participating in an autism treatment program for East African youngsters.

While many churches house or operate child care centers, this type of partnership between Westminster and St. David's Center for Child & Family Development is rare. Westminster spent more than $2 million to construct a beautiful addition for a nonprofit tenant during a recent renovation, and the diverse staff at each facility say it has been a mutually beneficial arrangement.

"We're involved in a lot of community work but we've never done that work on site," said the Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, senior pastor at Westminster. "There's something about having a mission partner working alongside us that is a wonderful experience. You see the difference the church is making right on site."

Julie Sjordal, CEO of St. David's, said the arrangement has been an ideal fit for her nonprofit. The Minnetonka-based agency provides services in several locations in the Twin Cities but had a long-range goal of finding a central location. Moving into a brand-new addition with a supportive partner was icing on the cake.

"Many clients we were serving in-home, and we were trying to get a location for therapies that needed to be on-site, such as classroom-based day treatment and speech therapy," said Sjordal. "We just didn't have a location as accessible as downtown Minneapolis."

"It was a perfect opportunity to partner with a church that has social justice at its core," she added.

This spring the center, named the Harman Center for Child & Family Wellbeing, marked its first anniversary. It has served more than 250 children, from infants to age 6, as well as offered parenting education classes for their caregivers.

Westminster has taken steps to help its new guests, including Muslim staff members, feel comfortable. An interfaith prayer room was included in the new space. Westminster staff received some cross-cultural training as well as training on children's mental health. There were a few "lunch and learn" sessions and a few social events for both staffs to get to know each other.

"I'm very involved in interfaith activities, but we haven't had Muslims working in the building every day," said Hart-Andersen. "We had to learn sensitivities to other people in the building."

Focus on children

The church-nonprofit partnership came together as Westminster was making a $73 million renovation of the church building. Westminster decided to build a separate addition for a nonprofit. But it hadn't decided on which one.

Nonprofits were invited to submit proposals. St. David's, a veteran Twin Cities child development agency, was among the applicants. Hart-Andersen said he was particularly drawn to St. David's work because he had seen how rocky or traumatic childhoods had affected adults in the homeless and affordable housing projects supported by his church.

"Early intervention is what really matters," said Hart-Andersen. "We saw that with youth we worked with in Nicollet Square [apartments]. There was not that kind of healthy family in their lives. That kind of trajectory really struck home."

He added: "We wanted to be involved in a project so a person's life really changes its trajectory, and St. David's is doing that."

Imogene Koehler is among the dozens of parents and guardians who bring their children to St. David's each week. Koehler, the adoptive mother of her nephew Kingston Mabone, said her son has been coming for speech and occupational therapy since January.

Each time, Kingston has met with a therapist and learned to pronounce certain letters he had struggled with. Another therapist helps him with balance and other physical weaknesses.

"It's all improved so much," Koehler said.

The location is perfect, she added. There is a free underground parking lot next to the church, with an elevator straight up to St. David's entrance.

"I think it's fantastic what has happened here," Koehler said. "Our churches need to do more to help our communities. This is excellence."

As the partnership moves into its second year, Hart-Andersen is excited for its future and further growth.

"This is exactly the kind of work a church should be doing," Hart-Andersen said. "Working to make the world a better place, especially for the most vulnerable. And children are the most vulnerable."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511