Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

ISAIAH program promotes justice in the city

Ralph Baumgartner is a key supporter of ISAIAH

Ralph Baumgartner is a key supporter of ISAIAH

Faith-based organizaation takes mandate from its namesake prophet

An ecumenical effort to strengthen the sense of community within congregations and engage these congregations in revitalizing the neighborhoods and larger areas in which they are located has drawn the support of 27 ELCA churches in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud regions.
Founded officially in January 2000, the ISAIAH organization now numbers about 80 congregations — one-third Roman Catholic, another third ELCA and the rest ranging across the Christian spectrum from Pente-costal to Episcopalian. The ELCA is the only Lutheran constituency involved.
The title ISAIAH is not an acronym. It refers to the Old Testament passage (Isaiah 58:12) that serves as the guiding motto for the group: “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”
The organization is the successor to separate ecumenical groups in the Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud areas that date back more than a decade, according to the Rev. Ralph Baumgartner, assistant to the bishop of the Saint Paul Area Synod of the ELCA.
Those groups, based on grass-roots organizing by congregations (the model used by ISAIAH), found that many of the problems they sought to solve in local neighborhoods required action at the metropolitan or state level, Baumgartner said. While they could deal with problems like a “crack house” or the need for a stoplight at a busy intersection, they were stymied when it came to issues such as affordable housing.
“That’s why the movement to merge these institutions was pretty strong,” the Saint Paul Synod official said.
Baumgartner stressed, however, that for ISAIAH members, revitalizing congregations is of equal importance with tackling issues in the public arena.
“We believe strong congregations and strong communities go hand-in-hand — they intersect,” he declared.
One of the first actions after ISAIAH was formed, he said, was to use some of the half-dozen professional community organizers on the group’s staff to train 350 people from 13 ELCA congregations in St. Paul. These trained leaders then made over 3,500 visits to members of their congregations, building relationships, soliciting their feelings about their church and asking in what ways they might like to serve.
“They just created a ton of energy, a lot of excitement,” Baumgartner said.
Turning to the outreach side of ISAIAH’s work, the synod official said that last fall, after six months of planning, some 250 trained persons from ELCA congregations and a few other parishes in St. Paul made door-to-door visits to nearly 3,000 residents in their neighborhoods. They got to know their neighbors and heard their views on public-policy issues that were of concern to them.
The two major issues that have risen from the grass roots and that ISAIAH as an organization is now addressing — after a lot of arguments and debate, Baumgartner said — are affordable housing and the treatment of immigrants.
On the housing front, trained advocates from ISAIAH congregations are now appearing before local and state legislative bodies to urge adoption of “inclusionary housing” policies.
This would involve passage of laws or ordinances requiring developers of single- or multi-family housing to set aside 15% of the units for housing that is “affordable,” as defined in the legislation.
Thus, said Baumgartner, the developer of homes around a cul de sac could build most of the homes to sell for $300,000 but would have to include one for $100,000. He and his ISAIAH colleagues believe this can be done while preserving a reasonable profit for the developer and without harming the overall attractiveness of the project.
While rent subsidies might be necessary in developments that include low-income families, theoretically the goal of inclusionary housing could be achieved without any government funds, according to Baumgartner. The only tool needed would be changes in zoning and related ordinances.
The model ISAIAH is following, the synod official said, is inclusionary housing measures that have been successfully implemented in communities like Portland, Oregon, and Montgomery County, Maryland.
It is not only low-income people who are being harmed by existing practices, Baum-gartner maintains; beginning professional people in such fields as teaching and parish ministry can’t find housing in the communities they serve.
And at the core of advocacy on the affordable housing issue, the pastor said, is the belief, documented in studies, that when concentrations of people living in poverty, in central cities and inner-ring suburbs, reaches a certain level, every aspect of life goes into “stress.” That includes social services, schools, churches, crime rates and access to employment.
“This is what we’re trying to change,” Baumgartner de-clared.
In regard to the immigrant community in Minnesota, the main target of ISAIAH currently is to reverse the policy adopted by the State Department of Public Safety in 1998 forbidding the issuing of drivers licenses to undocumented, or illegal, immigrants.
This position of ISAIAH reflects to a degree the fact that eight of the 80 member congregations are Latino ones, and it is Latin American immigrants who have been hurt most since Commissioner Charlie Weaver announced the new restriction.
Not only does the policy limit the mobility of these immigrants, if they abide by it, but it takes away their primary means of identification required for many types of transactions, opponents say.
As a practical matter, the result has been that many undocumented workers are driving the streets without licenses or car insurance, ac-cording to these advocates. Many immigrants also have been unable to open bank accounts without drivers licenses for identification, but this spring ISAIAH took action to start solving that problem.
The group’s Immigration Committee brought representatives from the Mexican consulate in Chicago to Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in St. Paul on March 22 to issue “Mexican ID cards” to immigrants. Personnel from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service also attended to take applications for Individual Taxpayer Identification Cards.
The Mexican consulate, issues the ID cards to persons with a Mexican birth certificate, a passport or photo ID, and proof of current residence. The agency was able to process applications for only 600 of nearly 3,000 people who showed up that day. But it has promised to return in August. Some area banks are now opening accounts for persons who have the Mexican ID card and the IRS taxpayer identification number.
Weaver’s demand is that potential immigrants go through proper channels in Mexico to secure legal status before coming to the United States. This may sound reasonable, Baumgartner suggested, until one considers that the U.S. is one of the hardest countries to get into and current policies favor the rich over the poor.
Professional people whose skills are needed in this country are granted entry quickly, he explained; but most of the poor, who seek legal immigration for the purpose of reuniting families, must wait for several years. Desperate to join their families, many bypass legal procedures and come without proper documentation, he indicated.
The reality, Baumgartner said, is that many of these undocumented people are willing to take hard, low-paying jobs that Americans spurn. “In some ways, these people are saving rural Minnesota by keeping packing plants and vegetable processing plants open, and we have employers recruiting them,” he said. Such recruiting is taking place in the Twin Cities area as well as outstate, he added.
While immigration and housing issues are the main focus of the ISAIAH organization as a whole, Baumgartner said, member congregations continue to address local problems too.
He cited a recent controversy in Maplewood over a proposal by Ramsey County officials to locate a shelter for homelessmothers and their children there. When “not-in-my-backyard” opposition arose, leaders from Gustavus Adol-phus Lutheran in St. Paul and Transfiguration Roman Catholic in Oakdale, individuals who had been trained by ISAIAH staff organizers, were able to make “crisp, hard-hitting presentations” to government agencies that led to saving the project, according to Baum-gartner.
ISAIAH is currently organized into two assemblies — one for the Twin Cities area and one for the St. Cloud area — according to Jay Schmitt, co-director of the group’s staff. Representa-tives from member congregations meet for quarterly leadership assemblies in the two areas, and pastors hold monthly meetings. Between these gatherings, a lot of work is done in committees, such as those tackling the housing and immigration issues.
The Rev. Stephen Sylvester, pastor of First Lutheran in St. Paul, heads the Twin Cities area assembly, and the Rev. David
Potter, associate pastor of Salem Lutheran in St. Cloud, leads the assembly in that area, Schmitt said. The Rev. Al
Negstad, pastor of St. James Lutheran in Crystal, is president of the overall ISAIAH organization.
A staff of five full-time and one half-time professional organizers works out of ISAIAH’s small office in the basement of Faith Mennonite Church (formerly the location of Ebenezer Lutheran) at 2720 E. 22nd St. in Minneapolis, along with several support employees.
A large chunk of ISAIAH’s $650,000 annual budget comes from grants by big area foundations, including the Bush, McKnight and Minneapolis Foundations and those of Medtronic and The St. Paul Companies, Schmitt said. Lesser amounts come from annual dues paid by member congregations and contributions from organizations like the Minneapolis Area Synod, Saint Paul Area Synod and Southwest Minnesota Synod of the ELCA.