On flyers, they called it the "Back to the Future Celebration." In conversation, they referred to it as the "great handover."

This summer, Walker Community United Methodist Church, which dates back more than a century, gave its Minneapolis building to New City Church, a growing congregation just eight years old. The move signals a change for both progressive churches — and the Powderhorn neighborhood they call home.

For decades, Walker — a long-standing hub of hippie counterculture — has done church differently. Giving away its building, which is worth several million dollars, is no exception.

Like many congregations largely made up of baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation, Walker's ranks have shrunk dramatically over the years. (A third of all U.S. churchgoers are now 65 and older, according to a 2020 report by Faith Communities Today.) Typically, dwindling congregations merge with another church or simply close, then sell their building. With the gift, Walker will stay on as a tenant and the owner will be New City — a congregation mostly made up of millennials and Gen Z folks that affirms queer people and those of color and focuses on environmental justice.

The building, now called New City Center for Healing Justice, will be managed by a nonprofit collective called Grapevine. The center's aim is to help make whole the neighborhood where George Floyd was murdered. It plans to fill the window-walled sanctuary and second-floor fellowship hall with activity every day of the week. In addition to the two churches, the space also houses groups like Southside Harm Reduction Services and Kaleidoscope Healing Arts.

The exchange gives members of Walker a chance to stay and see how new generations combine faith and social justice.

"Usually, the pattern is that a church closes and then they kind of yield their building to another congregation, out of desperation," said New City Rev. Tyler Sit. "Something that feels special about this is we'll continue to be in community with Walker and continue to share space with Walker. But they're just passing over the reins."

While both New City and Walker are United Methodist churches, merging wasn't something that either congregation — with vastly different worship styles — really considered.

"The DNA is very different," said Walker's Rev. David Wheeler.

'Eternally bustling'

The "great handover" celebration included hugs, speeches and songs from both congregations. Known for using popular music during its freewheeling worship celebrations, Walker's band played Merle Travis' "I Am a Pilgrim" before Wheeler gave Sit a copy of the church's deed. Everyone in the sanctuary reached out their hands to bless the paperwork.

"There is purpose in the transition. Walker Church is amazingly transferring this building to New City Church and that is a stewardship that we do not take lightly," Sit told the congregations gathered that day.

The gift was just the latest turning point for the building on 16th Avenue S., which has already been reinvented several times over — and was completely redesigned and rebuilt in 2013 after it was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.

While it dates back to 1886, Walker Church's first big reinvention came in the late 1960s, after its congregation collapsed during years of shifting demographics and flight to the suburbs.

The new pastor, Rev. Bryan Peterson, had a radical vision to open the building up to the neighborhood, offering space to incubate burgeoning creative and activist groups, from the first incarnations of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and KFAI "Fresh Air" radio to the south Minneapolis chapter of the Black Panthers and a gay and lesbian theater troupe called Out and About.

When a Minneapolis Tribune reporter visited in 1979, he described the church as "eternally bustling."

There's "a labyrinth of stairways, hallways and cubbyholes, with little offices tucked behind the altar and built into the sanctuary balcony. There is a radio station in the attic, a puppet troupe in the basement and a whole lot of enthusiastic volunteers sandwiched in between," he wrote.

Peterson died at 51 in 1986, and the church had ups and downs in the following decades. But it was able to again forge community partnerships in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Power in people

New City's pastor hopes to continue and adapt Walker's legacy.

"What we learned from the uprisings [after George Floyd's murder] is that there's power in people having broad and deep networks with each other," Sit said. "So if the building can be a space where healers, activists, organizers, clergy, people of faith can all be convening together, it'll make our neighborhood more resilient to respond to whatever traumatic event comes down the pike."

Sit, who grew up in Eden Prairie, was 26 when he started New City in his living room in 2015. Within a few years, his church was renting space from Walker.

A "church planter" supported by the United Methodists, Sit took what he calls a prayer walk through every neighborhood in Minneapolis before deciding on a home.

"I was trying to see the neighborhood how God sees the neighborhood," he said. "So, as I'm walking down the street or looking at shops, looking at what neighborhoods have which kind of car and what bumper stickers, and that kind of thing, I just really felt compelled to be part of what's going on in Powderhorn, and in Phillips and Central" neighborhoods.

After the building burned down back in 2012, Walker Church asked the congregation — and neighborhood residents — what they wanted before the church raised funds to rebuild. The church has a sanctuary free from religious symbols so it can also host secular concerts and other events; accessible bathrooms; an elevator; a commercial-grade kitchen, and a large dining hall where free food is distributed weekly.

"As New City Church we are in many ways benefactors to that neighborhood listening, because now we're going to be running a building that is intentionally supposed to be useful to the folks who need it the most in the neighborhood," Sit said.

"This, in many ways, has been decades in the making. When they rebuilt, they had the foresight to create a building that would be useful for tomorrow's generation."