Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Poor people need, and deserve, spiritual direction too

It’s not a question of class o economic status

Spiritual direction for the disenfranchised? One Twin Cities agency, City House, is bringing spiritual direction to the poor. Tom Allen is Executive Director of this nonprofit, whose mission is to help people “get their spirit back so their bodies can begin healing.”

Helping people discover their spirituality rather than promoting a specific religion is the goal. This is carried out by trained spiritual directors who counsel participants at various sites throughout the Twin Cities, and a bare-bones paid staff of one full-time and two part-time employees.

“Rather than a place, we are a group of committed spiritual companions dedicated to this cause.”

The director terms City House a “virtual ministry,” since it has no rented office space or conventional overhead. Resources go into counseling with program participants who include former prison inmates, drug dealers and prostitutes. The program, which is unique in the entire country, has been growing rapidly. It has conducted 4,700 visits with participants in the past year and has 38 active volunteers working at 25 sites around the Twin Cities. Program-ming ranges from one-on-one counseling to group sessions to organized retreats.

Allen says City House is “transforming participants as well as the volunteers.” His vision for the future is continued growth locally plus replication of the program in other cities around the country.

A recent publication from the agency included this quote from a program participant: “The City House volunteer taught me to have faith that God would pull me through this. My spiritual cup was empty. The City House volunteer helped me to fill that cup again. Without my self-esteem, I can’t be self-sufficient. The City House volunteer helped me to rebuild my self-esteem. City House hosted a retreat for several women in our program, and I could see from their volunteers that there are people out in the world who do care about other people. It let me know that I wasn’t alone in rebuilding my life.”

City House traces its origins to 2001. Founder Jim Dodge, a former accountant, retired Methodist pastor and 30-year cancer survivor, said, “A new vision for City House emerged out of a prayerful visioning process. Originally a group of spiritual directors were going to offer traditional spiritual direction from a site in Minneapolis; hence the name City House. When that plan did not materialize, a new vision emerged.

“Would it be possible, we wondered, for spiritual directors to offer their gifts ‘pro bono’ to the poor just as lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants and other professional groups do? Would spiritual directors, typically occupied with guiding white, middle-class folks, move out of their comfort zones and companion with poor, primarily people of color?”
Allen observes, “What we have learned is that spiritual direction on the margins happens way outside our comfort zones. Boundaries that would never get crossed in a classic spiritual direction relationship get crossed all the time in this kind of ministry. Spiritual formation is happening, but it isn’t in the context of a spiritual direction room with a lighted candle and a formal appointment time, and it isn’t one-way — it’s definitely mutual …

“What clients really want to know when they walk with you is whether they can trust you. They don’t believe that they are trustworthy —or that anyone is, for that matter. They will test you to see how far you will go. They also want to know if you will continue to come and see them if you know their crime. Ultimately, they really want to be loved and listened to, just like everyone else.

“The biggest gap be-tween our stereotypical white, middle-class volunteers and City House clients has not been race but class. Many of those we serve come from multiple generations of poverty. You can tell the difference between clients who are in situational poverty and those for whom poverty is the only way of life they have ever known. There are hidden rules of poverty, just like there are hidden rules of middle class. It is very challenging for both sides to understand and respect those rules.”

City House currently has a goal of training nontraditional volunteers as spiritual companions, individuals who have not been through formal spiritual direction training programs.

While City House is non-denominational in its ap-proach, key personnel have Lutheran ties. Allen is a member of Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. Board Chair Bert Amdahl, a member of Normandale Lutheran Church, Edina, is also Vice President-Administration/ CFO at Lutheran Youth Encounter.

Individual contributions constitute almost two-thirds of City House support, with foundations providing about 25%. Congregations provide about 4%. City House had the benefit of having some financial assets from the time of its founding, but leaders are concerned about finding a financial model that allows it to continue its growing ministry.

The program aims to establish more partnerships with congregations, especially those that are serious about spiritual formation and that have Stephen Ministry or Befrienders programs. Speakers are available for adult forums and other settings.

Anyone interested in knowing more about City House may call Tom Allen at 763-227-0686 or visit www. city-house.org.