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‘Get on board, little children’

What does light rail mean for churches? God only knows

The Central Corridor of the Twin Cities Light Rail Transit (LRT) system will stretch along Washington and University Avenues, joining the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Congregations along the LRT construction area will be undoubtedly be affected by the project, but it is unclear exactly how.

Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA), once the largest Lutheran congregation in St. Paul, now greets only 130 for worship each week. At its centennial in 2014, the congregation, located at 499 Charles Avenue, faces still more change. It just doesn’t know what.

As it happens, 2014 is the very year when Light Rail Transit trains start running along busy University Avenue just two blocks away.

Construction of the 11-mile, $953 million light rail project between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis has already snarled traffic since building began in 2010. At the same time, developers have anticipated an opportunity along the rail line — 5,100 new housing units are complete, under construction, or planned near the route. And some of the people moving in will seek churches.

So congregations near the new light rail line likewise see a chance to reverse long-term declines in member numbers, like that at Faith. But churches see challenges as well. Will development drive up home prices and property taxes? Will existing members be forced out of their communities?

Could Light Rail discourage church participation?

How churches respond is anybody’s guess. “You don’t dance,” says Pastor Tilman Bergman of Faith Lutheran, “until you hear the music.”

The train could be a blessing, but that’s hard to see just now. “I don’t think anyone knows how this will affect day-to-day life,” says the Rev. Paul Erickson, an assistant to the bishop in ELCA’s Saint Paul Area Synod. “The great hope is for increased access to work and entertainment and educational opportunities, but there are a lot of uncertainties as well.”

For example, Bergman worries about a few of his members who now cross University Avenue in wheelchairs to attend worship. Once complete, the train won’t let them cross at the familiar street. Those worshippers must go an extra two blocks to get to church. Will they? The extra distance particularly in winter can be daunting.

The train could be a blessing, but that’s hard to see just now.

The train has a bearing on churches’ big-picture strategy as well. Congregations in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood have grown accustomed to the area’s rich ethnic blend — African Americans, Hmong, and others. Churches have adapted ministries accordingly.

Housing prices now are low because of the mortgage crisis; indeed, two houses across the street from Faith are boarded up. If housing prices rise in the area, will the neighborhood demographics become whiter, with more people of European-American background moving in, taking advantage of bargains on existing houses? Will more African and Asian families depart? If so, congregations may have to adapt again.

Where will people go?

Pastor Andrew Thompson of St. Stephanus, a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation six blocks north of the line, isn’t sure where people will move — or whether they will. “Does this push people south,” he asks of the rail line, “or does this push people north?”

So all he can do is wait. “New housing development might be a very positive thing for the community,” says Thompson. “But I don’t know that it will necessarily trickle into the church. Not that I would mind it.”

A Central Corridor Light Rail Transit stop is under construction at the corner of Snelling and University avenues in St. Paul. Bethlehem Lutheran Church's steeple can be seen above the station on the left side of the photograph. Several other Lutheran congregations are located within blocks of the corridor. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Near the busy intersection of Snelling and University avenues, pastors at Bethlehem Lutheran have another worry. Bethlehem, an ELCA congregation, serves a free meal each Monday to about 250 low-income people in the neighborhood. The church provides free clothing as well through a ministry called Open Hands Midway, Inc. The train? “We’re concerned about how it affects all the poor people in the neighborhood,” says Bethlehem’s Pastor Steve Slostad.

Crossing University at Snelling may actually be easier now. Pedestrians reach the paved rail line strip down the middle of the busy street after crossing only three lanes of traffic, not six curb-to-curb as before.

Yet if property values and rents push current residents away from the line, family by family, Bethlehem’s ministry to low-income residents will change. Likewise, Bergman wonders what the train means for the Loaves and Fishes ministry at Faith.

A long-term perspective

All along the line, the uncertainty is palpable, the looming changes worrisome. Yet Christians are no strangers to change. Indeed, they have been party to the greatest change ever — God’s intervention in history in the person of Jesus. Two thousand years ago, the first Christians endured an overwhelming change at Easter, and figured it out.

Ironically, Faith’s Bergman knows that very place well. He served from 1984 to 1993 as pastor at Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem, near the traditional site of the resurrection.

His ministry there came at a time of particularly disturbing change — what has come to be called the first intifada, the uprising by Palestinians against Israelis, with considerable violence.

This gives Bergman, shall we say, a keen perspective on what is permanent, what changes, and how the two relate.

In St. Paul, he tries to put the best construction on light rail and what it means for ministry, hoping for “good things” with the changes. “The work of the church,” he adds, “is not static.”

In all this, one thing remains the same: “How do we proclaim the message of the Gospel in a hopeful fashion, no matter what the setting or the situation?” says Bergman. “That’s all we can do.”

For more information about Central Corridor Light Rail Transit, go to www.centralcorridor.org.

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