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At Holy Trinity, social issues are always on the table

The Rev. Ronald Johnson

The Rev. Ronald Johnson

South Minneapolis congregation wades right into tough questions.

Holy Trinity Lutheran, a 100-year-old inner-city congregation in south Minneapolis, has seen its membership decline to less than half the postwar peak of 3,000 it reached in the early 1960s. But in the last 25 to 30 years it has managed to stabilize its size at 1,200 members while building what is recognized to be one of the Twin Cities’ strongest social ministry programs.
The mission efforts of Holy Trinity members now reach into a wide variety of fields. These include:
* construction of housing for low-income people;
n serving as a community center for discussion of moral and ethical issues;
* sending groups of members to study and then act on problems of poverty in Third World countries; and
* plunging into neighborhood issues like revitalizing old commercial corridors.
One of the congregation’s newest activities is support of the Nonviolent Peace Force, an international organization that sends trained people to try to help resolve bitter internal conflicts at the request of host countries. The first project is in Sri Lanka.
Located at 2730 E. 31st St., several blocks southeast of the major commercial center at Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, the ELCA congregation has undergone a change in its composition that mirrors that of the Longfellow community it serves.
The population in Longfellow has been drastically cut by the exodus of middle-aged families with children to the suburbs. That movement began in the 1960s and was accentuated by the large-scale clearing of homes for the Hiawatha Corridor. The commuter lane now contains an expressway linking downtown Minneapolis with the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and also hosts the new Hiawatha light-rail transit line.
The Longfellow community is now believed to have the highest percentage of single-person households in the city. The families still living there are older empty-nesters or younger couples with no children — or fewer children than those that have departed.
The beginning of many of the social-ministry projects seems to coincide quite closely with the arrival of the Rev. Ron Johnson as pastor 29 years ago. But, while acknowledging that he is responsible for some of the activity, Johnson emphasized that it’s a team effort and many of the projects stem from the concerns of people in the congregation.
However, he added, “It’s fair to say the preaching pretty regularly holds up important issues. I don’t have any hesitation in dealing with political, moral and social issues from the pulpit.”
The quality of Johnson’s preaching has played no small part in the successful struggle for stability and the vitality of the ministry at Holy Trinity, outsiders say.
“The preaching is the best I’ve heard in town,” said the Rev. Arvid (Bud) Dixen, an ELCA pastor who chose membership at Holy Trinity for his retirement years after visiting a number of congregations.
“Johnson takes the Gospel very seriously, does his homework, and brings it up to date so the Gospel is not just a wonderful old story but also informs our lives today.”
One of the earliest ventures Holy Trin-ity made in addressing social issues was construction of a 120-unit high-rise apartment building for low-income senior citizens just east of the church in 1979 (see a photo on the facing). And, last November, the parish completed a 24-unit apartment building for people of any age. The new unit is north of the first one, fronting on Lake Street. Both buildings house tenants from throughout the neighborhood, not just members of the church.
One-third of the units in the new building rent at market rates and the remainder are subsidized. Of the latter, half are reserved for persons with mental-health problems who are poor but capable of living independently.
In connection with the new apartment project, Holy Trinity has provided office space in the church building for Mental Health Resources, a private agency of professional workers who serve both residents of the apartment building and the surrounding community.
Members of Holy Trinity have been active in Habitat for Humanity housing projects for about 15 years. For much of that time, they were known for contributing specialists in insulation work to Habitat teams, but last year Holy Trinity and St. Peder Lutheran, another ELCA congregation in south Minn-eapolis, teamed up to build an entire Habitat house themselves. The structure went up four blocks from Holy Trinity Church.
Between 75 and 100 Holy Trinity members pitched in on the project, which was a gift to the community as part of the congregation’s centennial celebration. It was from St. Peder Church, originally a Danish immigrant congregation, that Holy Trinity was spun off in 1904 because of the desire of its founders to worship in the English language.
For at least 25 years, Johnson said, Holy Trinity has served as a “center for moral and ethical discourse” for its members and the Longfellow community. Speakers with expertise on issues related to politics and the social order engage in dialogues with persons attending over breakfast, lunch or in the evening about once every two months. Attendance ranges from 25 to 150, Johnson said. Recent topics have included the Patriot Act and religion & labor.
The church’s own Sunday morning adult forums cover a variety of subjects, but many are also related to social issues, Johnson said.
“We’re always trying to get at the moral and ethical issues,” the pastor ex-plained. “We try to have our congregation informed on a wide range of issues. That helps to stimulate political action, and we certainly encourage that.”
For 30 years Holy Trinity has been encouraging groups of members to travel to Third World countries, primarily in Central America and Africa, to study the problems of poverty and learn what can be done to alleviate them.
One result has been the establishment of close ties between the congregation and the Northwest Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. Holy Trinity members have contributed funds for the building of a secondary school there, for providing supplies for hospitals and dispensaries, for establishing a library at a Bible school and for an endowment fund to subsidize retirement pensions for pastors in the diocese.
Two years ago a group of Holy Trinity members crossed the border into Mexico to live in a barrio and visit the string of big factories that have been built on the Mexican side of the border. Their goal was to learn about the problems of Mexican workers and the reasons why so many of them try to get into the United States as migrant laborers.
This summer Johnson will take a contingent of youths and adults to a ranch in Arkansas in connection with The Heifer Project. They’ll learn how the project is attacking problems of hunger in the Third World. And, they’ll do hands-on work in raising the animals that will be sent to families in poor countries to produce offspring for other families.
Closer to home, Holy Trinity members serve as cooks under the Loaves and Fishes program at nearby Holy Rosary Catholic Church and at the big homeless shelter at Simpson United Methodist Church. They’ve also worked with other community groups to help restore vitality to the commercial corridors in the area, particularly the business hub at 27th Avenue S. and Lake Street.
Johnson acknowledges that many issues in the social and political arena are complex and people of good will within a congregation can come up with different solutions.
Members of the congregation don’t think alike on all issues, he said, and there’s a danger that advocates for a position can come off as dismissive of other perspectives.
“We try to look at complexity, but we try not to be intimidated by [it],” the pastor said. “It’s necessary to adopt a stance at some point, but that stance is subject to revision by greater knowledge.”
If a congregation is going to get involved in social issues, he said, to some extent members will have to “agree to disagree.”
But, Johnson asserted, it’s surprising how much common ground members at Holy Trinity have found. And, where there is disagreement on an issue, he said, everyone knows there’s a place in the overall ministry where he or she can participate.
There’s another factor that’s been important in making social ministry a broad-based thing in the Holy Trinity congregation, Johnson says. That’s the fact that his colleague on the pastoral staff — his daughter, Stacy — has written a Sunday School curriculum that incorporates some of the issues surrounding the social implications of the Gospel.