Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Congregations help those caught in poverty — one family at a time

Lutherans didn’t create the “Starfish Ministries’’approach, but some Lutherans are using the model

The St. Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
has committed itself to work to eliminate poverty in Minnesota by the year
2020. Some of this effort will doubtless come in concert with state
government, but there are grassroots possibilities as well.

One notable alternative is something called “Starfish Ministries.” Lutherans
could have conceived of this strategy. They didn’t, but some Twin Cities
congregations are finding the program works for them anyway. They have the
Christian Reformed Church (CRC) to thank for the gutsy model, which pairs
individuals in local congregations with local families caught in poverty.
Four Lutheran congregations in the Twin Cities have currently signed on with
Starfish: St. Michael Lutheran, Roseville; Lutheran Church of Peace,
Maplewood; Trinity Lutheran, Minneapolis; and Brooklyn Park Lutheran,
Brooklyn Park.

Local CRC congregations conceived of Starfish in 1995. The effort is to “do
ministry larger than one congregation,” according to Bonnie Smith, a Starfish
administrator. “The vision of the founders was to do mentoring with
homeless or low-income families.” The group started in partnership with
Union Gospel Mission, a ministry on the front lines where down-and-out
citizens are concerned.

At first, Starfish (whose name comes from a parable about saving one life at a
time) set out to mentor men and women in transitional housing facilities. The
vision has grown. Now congregations are matched with struggling families.
The hope is to provide mentoring, helping those caught in difficult
circumstances to climb out of them.

According to Smith, a congregation enters into a mentoring relationship with
one or more families who apply for assistance through Starfish. The
mentoring congregation provides a pair of individuals to work with the family
— one to help develop coping, survival and improvement skills, and another
to help with finances. The congregation makes a minimum one-year
commitment, but typically these arrangements continue for a good deal
longer.

At St. Michael Lutheran in Roseville, two families are currently receiving
mentoring. One is a single-parent, Miranda, and her children, residents of St.
Paul. Their support team at St. Michael consists of Sue Thompson and Jill
Ostlund. Ostlund is the goal-promoting mentor, Thompson the financial
coach.

Says Thompson, “Miranda lives about ten miles from St. Michael Church. Jill
and I are entering our third year, working with her and her children. We
communicate in a variety of ways — face-to-face, e-mail, and phone.”

The mentoring/coaching process with Miranda and her children has become
a multi-year effort. “She’s made good strides. We decided to stay with her for
the longer term. There’s a lot more stability in her situation now than there
was when we began.”

It was tough sledding at first. Miranda, her four children, and Miranda’s
mother were all living in a tiny living space. There was some outstanding
debt. Miranda had no automobile. Holding onto a job was a challenge.
Says Thompson, the progress is significant. “Now she rents a very nice house
with a lot of space. She’s rid of some of her debt. She has a car. She had a job
for about a year — before she was laid off. Just now, she’s decided to get
some schooling. There are welfare issues, but she’s coping.”

This is not a one-way street. Thompson admits, “It’s been a learning
experience for [Jill and me].” Asked whether the congregation at large is also
learning from their work with “their” family, she concedes, “We need to work
a little harder on that part. The congregation could probably provide some
good feedback for us. And they could grow, too, knowing what’s being
accomplished.”

Working with a family in distress is not a program to draw a new set of church
members to Sunday worship. Obviously, that wouldn’t be an unwelcome
consequence. But, says Thompson, “We do this work and offer our assistance
without condition. We don’t lay an expectation on the family that they will
join our church, or even show up. Not that we don’t offer gentle suggestions
where appropriate. On the other hand, Miranda and her children come to
fellowship events at St. Michael. Perhaps they’ll come to worship one of these
Sundays, too. We’ll see how that goes.”

There are those in the wider church community who have their doubts about
helping vulnerable individuals. A common perception is that, if you’re poor, it
may be your own fault — you must be incompetent, stupid, or lazy.
Thompson doesn’t buy that. “I have no doubt that Miranda works really hard
to make things go right. Getting and holding a job is tough. She’s not lazy.
She’s caught in some systemic problems.” She adds, “Nobody wants to be in
her situation. It’s hard work trying to survive as she does.”

As her financial coach, Thompson marvels at how few resources are really
available. “The magnitude of the things this family has to deal with means it’s
been very hard for her to do a budget. That’s been a challenge. It surprised
me how hard it is to build a spending plan when there’s so little to work
with.”

St. Michael became aware of Starfish Ministries through its Social Ministry
Committee. Neither Thompson nor Ostlund is on the committee, but when
the group went looking for volunteers to help make the Starfish initiative
work, both were ready to give it a try.

“The committee had an information session to explain this,” says Thompson.
“Jill and I attended. After we heard what the plan and the parameters were,
we looked at each other and said, ‘We could do this.’” And so they have.
According to Thompson, neither of them has any regrets.

The Starfish parable tells of a man who finds starfish on a beach and hurls
them back into the surf, one by one. He knows he’ll never save all the starfish
stranded on the sand, but he also knows he’ll rescue the ones he bothers to
pick up. In that spirit, Thompson speaks for her partner and herself when she
says, “We can’t change the whole world. But we can do what we can.”

For more information about Starfish Ministries, visit www.StarfishMN.info or
call Bonnie Smith at 651/457-2477. She can also be reached at
Bonnie@StarfishMN.com.