Featured Stories, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

A house of worship, a place of welcome

Jordan New Life Lutheran Church defines Christian hospitality

Larry Harris first stepped into Jordan New Life Church because he wanted a free cup of coffee, one of the many ministries of hospitality offered by this Lutheran congregation on 25th Street in north Minneapolis. Harris had heard that Jordan New Life was a church that didn’t ask a lot of questions with its coffee.

But Harris got more than he bargained for. First, “Ms. Marjorie [Welch, church receptionist] said, ‘You just need to come on in; whatever you need, we’re gonna do it.’ And other staff were just as welcoming.

Larry Harris

Eventually, he met the Rev. Terrance Jacob, who had just come on board as the new pastor of Jordan New Life. Harris found it easy to talk with Jacob. He didn’t hear the judgment that he was used to from “church people.” He was able to share about his struggles with addiction and his history in the corrections system. “I talked about my criminal background,” recounts Harris, “and pastor just said, ‘I accept you as you are; the past is the past.’ When I heard that, I knew God was in this place.

“It was a surprise because people at Jordan New Life gave not because they wanted something [from me]. They just wanted to give.”

“Slowly I got more involved,” says Harris. “First, Ms. [Cecile] Johnson invited me to an addiction group [that meets at Jordan New Life]. Then, I started inviting others to the meetings.” With time, Harris was helping to carry people’s laundry to their car. (Jordan New Life has four washing machines and dryers for people who don’t have access to other washing facilities.)

One day Jacob said to Harris, “You came here to be assisted, but now you are coming regularly, so we need to change your status here.” By fall, Harris was helping as an usher and a teller. Then his life took some twists that would define what hospitality really means.

Liturgies for all life’s situations

People with criminal pasts have not necessarily finished their sentences once they are out of jail. Part of the sentence may involve parole, or being “on paper.” While on parole, the offenders must follow a set of rules.

Larry Harris was maintaining most of those rules, having been out of prison for more than nine years. But, at one point, he neglected to notify his parole officer about a change in address. That is a parole violation.

Terrance Jacob

When Larry told his parole officer (PO) about the infraction, the PO told him not to worry. However, Harris received an 85-day sentence for violation of his parole agreement.

‘I accept you as you are; the past is the past.’

“Larry was nervous about going away,” Jacob said. “And, when he didn’t come by [the church] for a few days, I was worried that he didn’t feel welcome anymore, that I had somehow given him the message that he wasn’t supposed to be here.”

So, when Harris did show up before he started his sentence, the church staff threw a banquet. “Yeah, people said ‘Come to the banquet, Larry,’ and I said, ‘Who’s the banquet for?’ I couldn’t believe that it was for me.

“It was a surprise because people at Jordan New Life gave not because they wanted something [from me]. They just wanted to give.”

On the Sunday morning before his incarceration was to start, as worship was beginning, Pastor Jacob informed the congregation that they would be doing a special liturgy — one that wasn’t found in the Lutheran Book of Worship. They would be blessing a brother headed for prison. (With a history of so many faithful witnesses to the gospel, from Paul to Martin Luther King, Jr., spending time in jail, it’s surprising there is no such litany of blessing.)

“The people were stunned,” claims Jacob. “Of course, we included Larry in the prayers of the people. But Larry also shared his heart with the members. What followed was amazing. Person after person stood up and told Larry what he meant to them, and what his presence meant — from people feeling safer being in church when he was there to people thanking him for help with their practical needs.

“But, most significant was the youth. First, they gave him a copy of the Bible they use [called Project 6:13, after the verse in Ephesians about the armor of God], in which they had written encouraging notes” Jacob says. “Then, they gathered around him, laid hands on him, and prayed that he would grow through his experience.”

Lonnie Branch, a member of Jordan New Life, told Jacob that he had never seen anything like that, in his 20 years as a prison chaplain, he had never heard of such a service before. And Harris said, “I knew I would be coming back after I served my time; I knew I had a spiritual family.”

Holy pardon

Pastor Jacob and Carlos McLean, another member of the congregation, picked up Harris from the county workhouse when he had completed his sentence. The congregation had had limited contact with Harris while he was gone, because he said it was too hard to have visitors. He had, however, used his phone privileges to call the church and check in on his brothers and sisters.

Another feast awaited Larry as they approached the church. This time he was less surprised, he said. “Scripture comes alive through these people,” Harris added. “And, this is my sanctuary!”

“Larry had love and he wanted to share it,” said Jacob. “But no one would take it. The church saw someone giving unconditional love, and they welcomed it.

“We didn’t intend to start an outreach program to felons,” Jacob further explained. “We just love the ones we know.”

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