Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Urban, suburban Lutherans build a bridge

Redeemer, North Minneapolis, and Westwood, St. Louis Park, sharing strengths, support

Since January of this year, Westwood Lutheran Church, St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and Redeemer Lutheran, north Minneapolis, have collaborated on a number of projects. But the aim is to move beyond the usual scenario in which the big suburban congregation helps the struggling inner city one with money and assistance with programs.

Jason Van Hunnik, associate pastor at Westwood and a prime mover in establishing the new relationship, says the hope is that eventually the two congregations will come to see each other as “extensions of our ministries as fellow members of the body of Christ.”

The Rev. Kelly Chatman, the black pastor of Re-deemer, praises Westwood’s leaders for approaching the relationship as a partnership of equals in which each has gifts to contribute, not just for the benefit of the two congregations but the communities where they’re located and the church and the world beyond.

Chatman says the north Minneapolis Harrison neighborhood along Glenwood Avenue, which his church serves, is now made up of 38% Africans, 28% Asians, 20% whites and 14% Hispanics and others. His congregation is 50% black and 50% white.
Redeemer offers “a great opportunity for the church to see the global church and what the church is going to look increasingly like in the future,” he said.

Chatman adds, “What I see in this partnership, rather than how much money goes into it and what kinds of activity, is how we experience relationships with people who don’t look like us, don’t think like us and come from very different backgrounds …

“For people from Westwood to come and worship with these folks and for our people to worship at Westwood is a way to experience the reality of God in ways that we don’t experience every day.”

The first event in the partnership of the two congregations came on the Sunday of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in January. Chat-man preached at Westwood and Van Hunnik at Re-deemer in the morning, and 50 members of Westwood attended the afternoon MLK celebration at Redeemer, which included a program and potluck fellowship time.

The entire Redeemer congregation traveled to Westwood on Pentecost Sunday for a worship service at which both Chatman and Van Hunnik preached. Groups from Westwood have gone to Redeemer for worship services a number of times, another indication that worship together has been a focal point of the relationship so far.

Music has also been a shared strength of the two congregations, Chatman said.

Westwood has been known for the quality and breadth of its music program for a half-century; and Yolanda Williams, a professional musician and college-level music instructor, has led the Redeemer choir in providing music at West-wood. Redeemer youths have also shared their zest for hip-hop music with their counterparts at Westwood.

Lisa Fleming, a member of Westwood who is a skilled photographer, teamed up with Julie Bringman, youth organizer at Redeemer, to lead a weeklong photography camp for middle-school kids at Redeemer during spring break. And some other Westwood members go to Redeemer twice a month to help with the after-school program there.

Van Hunnik says a good start has been made in providing opportunities for the two congregations to build a relationship but the surface has only been scratched.
The Westwood Luther-an pastor looks forward particularly to bringing the gifts of people of his St. Louis Park congregation to bear on the remarkable housing program Re-deemer has created.

The north Minneapolis congregation, which has a one-block campus on the north side of Glenwood between Logan and Morgan Avenues, currently provides 23 units of affordable housing in two apartment buildings and two houses.
Both Chatman and Van Hunnik emphasize that the new tie between Redeemer and Westwood is not meant to be a criticism of the supportive relationship Calvary Lutheran of Golden Valley has had with Redeemer for the past 25 years.

“If Calvary had not been a partner 25 years ago and continued to be a partner, Redeemer would not be here today,” Chatman said. The relationship with Calvary set the stage for others that Redeemer now has, he added.

Van Hunnik said West-wood doesn’t see any conflict between the relationship it is pursuing with Redeemer and Calvary’s link with the north Minneapolis church.

“We honor the fact that that has been a long, wonderful thing and there are a lot of good things that should continue to stay,” he said.

“We believe that through our relationship and engagement we will get a larger understanding of what God is up to in the world and what that will mean for the future of Westwood and St. Louis Park.”

The friendship between Chatman and Van Hunnik goes back a number of years and has played an important role in the partnership now being created between Redeemer and Westwood.
They first met at an ELCA training retreat in Georgia when Chatman was youth director for the ELCA in its Chicago offices and Van Hunnik was a member of the staff at Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp in Colorado prior to attending seminary.

Chatman accepted the call to Redeemer when his wife, Cheryl, took a position as a vice president at Concordia University in St. Paul. Van Hunnik, who had become an ordained pastor, served on the staff at Zion Lutheran in south Minneapolis prior to being called to Westwood in 2004.

At Zion he was involved in the ZOOM affordable housing project, which enhanced his already keen interest in the possibilities of cooperation between urban and suburban congregations.

Although Westwood had a history of involvement in service projects locally and abroad, one of the tasks assigned to Van Hunnik when he was called there was to establish effective, in-depth outreach efforts with two congregations, one abroad and one in Minneapolis. The fact that Chatman and Van Hunnik had renewed their friendship with weekly meetings for coffee helped push the choice of a local congregation in Redeemer’s direction.

The gap in size between Westwood and Redeemer is considerable. The former has some 2,500 baptized members and counts between 650 and 700 worshippers on an average Sunday. Redeemer has about 70 worshippers on Sundays.

But that has not prevented the two from establishing a relationship marked by “a unique kind of openness and a partnership that’s equitable,” said Chatman.

Moreover, he said, “We can’t let our self-esteem be based on numbers. It’s about whether a congregation enriches the lives of the entire community and how that enrichment displays itself.”