A 'church without walls' becomes a meeting place
During its 140 years, Trinity Lutheran Congregation has traveled a long road
in serving the needs of the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis. Once the
bustling “mother church” of the Lutheran Free Church, a synod serving
Norwegian immigrants, it is now a small parish that doesn’t have a sanctuary
of its own but is deeply involved in outreach to East African newcomers to its
Despite a lot of red ink on its financial books, Trinity has won admiration for
its work in welcoming these new residents, principally from Ethiopia and
Eritrea, as well as other non-traditional Lutherans. And it’s now been joined
by two congregations from outlying parts of the Minneapolis Area Synod in a
unique partnership designed to ensure that its work continues and, possibly,
becomes a model for other urban Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church of south Minneapolis and Mount Olivet
Lutheran of suburban Plymouth are now linked with Trinity under a program
of the Minneapolis Area Synod called “Making a World of Difference.”
Nokomis Heights, launched in 1929 as a Lutheran Free Church congregation
with financial help from the Trinity parish, now has 474 members. Mount
Olivet, a suburban church of 2000 members, had its beginnings in 1881 as a
mission congregation serving a German farming community.
Under the “Making a World of Difference” program, Nokomis Heights and
Mount Olivet, along with the Thrivent Foundation, are making annual financial
contributions to Trinity. So far Nokomis Heights, whose partnership with
Trinity began two years before it joined the synod program with Mount Olivet
and Thrivent, has donated $31,000. Mount Olivet has contributed $21,000,
and Thrivent has just completed its commitment of $50,000.
Terri Endres, the diaconal minister who manages the “Making a World of
Difference” project, said the goal following the completion of Thrivent’s
pledge is for Nokomis Heights and Mount Olivet to step up their contributions
and, possibly, for other other congregations to join the ongoing partnership.
Overall, Thrivent has granted $480,000 for work with Trinity and nine other
city congregations to develop what Endres describes as “innovative, creative
ways to continue to fund ministries that by themselves probably will never be
self-sustaining because of the neighborhoods in which they serve.” The hope,
Endres continued, is that the Trinity-Nokomis Heights-Mount Olivet
partnership will produce one model for making an inner-city ministry vital
and financially sustainable, with elements that can be applied elsewhere.
Endres is quick to point out that partnerships of this type won’t succeed if
they’re based on financial assistance alone. “To make it work, there’s got to
be mutual benefit, mutual exchange,” she said.
A chief benefit for Nokomis Heights and Mount Olivet, according to Endres, is
that Trinity serves as a mentor “in terms of how you do ministry in a
She explained: “Suburban congregations are going to face — if not now, very
soon — the same issues our city congregations are facing in terms of
Kristin Kessel, director of outreach ministries at Mount Olivet, agrees that
there is a lot her congregation can learn from Trinity. “Trinity is so into their
community, their surrounding neighborhood and welcoming everyone,”
Kessel said. “That’s just a wonderful model for our congregation.”
The Rev. Susan Debner, pastor of Nokomis Heights, sees another benefit.
Through the partnership her congregation is able to feel as if it’s out there
working with a community that Trinity is doing ministry with — one that
Nokomis Heights can’t serve directly but which is important to the larger
Since the formation of the partnership three years ago, a 12-member
planning committee with representatives from the three parishes has met
monthly, rotating locations among the three participants. Members have
been learning about the ministries of each church and building relationships.
Trinity Congregation currently has about 200 members, one-fourth of whom
are East Africans. Worship services have been held in Hoversten Chapel on
the Augsburg College since the chapel’s completion in 1989.
In the years following the demolition of the old Trinity sanctuary at 20th
Avenue South and 9th Street in 1966 to make way for the I-94 freeway, the
congregation made a conscious decision not to build a new church edifice
but to use all its resources for serving the needs of the diverse population in
the Cedar Riverside area. Prior to its move to the Augsburg chapel in 1989,
the Trinity congregation held worship services at Presbyterian and Roman
Catholic churches in the area.
It also acquired the 2100 block on the south side of Riverside Avenue and
eventually moved its offices to a building on that site, which it shares with the
St. Martin’s Table restaurant and bookstore. In addition, Trinity used part of
the property to develop 17 townhouses and a 37-unit apartment building.
As its outreach to the Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants developed, Trinity
has chosen to have two worship services on Sunday mornings. The first is
basically an English-language one, with use of the several languages spoken
by the Ethiopians and Eritreans incorporated in recitation of the Lord’s Prayer
and on the stanzas of one hymn. The second service is that of the Lutheran
Church of Ethiopia, Mekane Yesu, and is entirely in Amharic, the official
language of Ethiopia.
The two biggest outreach programs of Trinity today are its Wednesday night
community suppers and its after-school Homework Help Program, said the
Rev. Jane Buckley-Farlee, senior pastor.
People from throughout the neighborhood attend the Wednesday-night
suppers: whites, African Americans, and East Africans, including Somali
immigrants. The Somalis technically aren’t members of Trinity, but they
regard themselves as members and so does the church, Buckley-Farlee said.
Those attending the suppers are “a whole another group,” according to the
pastor. “What happens there is as sacred as what happens on Sunday,” she
The Homework Help Program runs weekday afternoons after school during
the school year, and from 10 to 30 kids jam into a small room in the Trinity
office building. The program is directed by Maggie Saylor, a Lutheran
Volunteer Corps worker. Student volunteers from Augsburg College and the
University of Minnesota serve as tutors.
Trinity took a big step four years ago when it hired the Rev. Alem Asmelash,
a native of Ethiopia, as associate pastor. Asmelash lived for a while in Sweden
before coming to the United States. He holds a degree from a Methodist
seminary in Sweden and masters and doctors degrees from Luther Seminary.
Since Asmelash came on board, more than 35 new members from Ethiopia
and Eritrea have joined the congregation.
Leading the Trinity operation can be a challenging, sometimes exhausting
job, Pastor Buckley-Farlee acknowledges. The congregation regularly
overspends its annual budget of about $230,000, but that is done
intentionally as it seeks to put the top priority on having an adequate staff to
run its programs, she said.
The congregation banked the condemnation award of $256,000 it received
from the state for the taking of its old church property for freeway
construction and continues to draw on those funds, the pastor said. But it
couldn’t carry on many of its activities without the help of Nokomis Heights
and Mount Olivet.
The future of Trinity is something that continues to evolve, Buckley-Farlee
said. About all the congregation knows is that it will continue to work toward
its goal of being one people — the body of Christ — in all its diversity.
One thing the congregation does know, the pastor said, is that its youth are
key to its future. Of 12 children in the confirmation class last year, 10 were
African-born and two were American-born, but they came together and
became the best of friends, according to the pastor. The youth are key
because they have to navigate between parents whose roots are in African
culture and “the American world they totally love,” Buckley-Farlee said.
Trinity’s role has to be to help these youths as they chart their course, and
the young people know that, she said.