A Simple Feast

Growing the commons for the Common Good

Eva Jensen

In December 1982, during oppressive winter conditions with shelters overflowing, Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser turned to congregations asking them to open their doors to people desperate for shelter and food. Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) is one congregation that said yes. The gymnasium in the lower level was transformed into a place where cots and blankets were laid out; members provided food and a faithful presence for all who came. The building was a sanctuary of worship and refuge that the people shared together. This one time request transformed the mission of the congregation.

The early church was described as a community that held all in common.

Over time members, volunteers, and staff developed relationships with people who lived in the shelter and the congregation decided to expand their ministry to people without housing. They purchased neighborhood houses that today provide three levels of housing — emergency shelter for 40 residents in bedrooms for 2 to 4 people; transitional housing for 16 residents who are leaving homelessness and moving toward stability and independence; and permanent supportive housing with on-going support from case managers for adults who have been long-term homeless.

Every evening dinners are prepared and served in the emergency shelter by volunteers from congregations throughout the Twin Cities. Hot breakfasts are similarly prepared and served a couple times a week. Volunteers and case management staff work with residents in the common commitment to provide security, resources, and stability that can lead to long-term housing and independent living. The congregation has now turned this ministry into a non-profit organization called Our Saviour’s Community Services. Through this collaborative with many, what has evolved is a “housing commons” to overcome the long-term problem of homelessness.

Managing the common spaces

The concept of “the commons” is an old idea and a practice that organized human society in many different contexts and cultures. It refers to the many diverse ways that we share equitably and sustainably what belongs to all of us — land, water, forests, seeds, the air, roadways and park systems, public television and public education.

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work that documented how communities around the world have equitably and sustainably managed common resources — grazing lands, forests, irrigation waters, and fisheries — over the long term. She argued that local people know and care about the assets they share. They have, and they will create, rules for use that protect the resources and meet the needs of all in order to serve the common good.

Minneapolis author Jay Walljasper in his 2010 book, All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, wrote, “… the commons is not merely an assortment of things — natural resources, cultural treasures, public places — but also a way of sharing and working with others to create a better [present] and future.” In this edited book Jay provides an excellent introduction to the concept of the commons, the growing commons movement, success stories, and practical ideas about how we can reclaim the commons for the common good.

The early church was described as a community that held all in common:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Acts 2: 44-45

Across religious traditions, individual well-being is dependent upon the overall health of the wider community. As Lutherans, we are shaped by values of compassion and a vision for the common good. Jay Walljasper’s book is an excellent resource for a very practical study for a congregation looking at its own mission and stewardship and ways to contribute to the common good.

On Friday, October 26, from 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm, interested persons have the opportunity to be inspired and to learn more about how to contribute to the growing movement of the commons as well as support the shelter ministry of Our Saviour’s Community Services (OSCS). Jay Walljasper will be the featured speaker at OSCS’s Fourth Annual Fundraiser. (2012 is its 30th year of operations.)

The fundraiser will be held at Open Book Building, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis. All That We Share was published in 2010 by The New Press.

Eva Jensen is an ELCA pastor who lives and works in the Twin Cities.

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