Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Does God need bookends?

Church goes on as an Oromo congregation flourishes following the hand off of Our Redeemer

Valborg Tollefsrud understands mission — and change. “Churches come and
go,” she says. “Church goes on.”
A century ago, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church (ELCA) of Minneapolis began
as a church for newcomers to the United States — Swedish and Norwegian
immigrants.
Then a year ago, Our Redeemer, Tollefsrud’s congregation, held its last
service after turning the facility over to another immigrant congregation.
Does God like bookends? We might note that handoff of Our Redeemer was to
immigrants from Ethiopia. The first Christian mission outside the Holy Land
was to Ethiopia. The Book of Acts says the Spirit called Philip to the south on
the desert road to Gaza. On the road, he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch,
treasurer to Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians.
Our Redeemer had been faltering, its 75 members nearly all advanced in
years. “We didn’t have a Sunday school,” says Tollefsrud, who was serving as
president. “We had not had a baptism for three years.”
Peak membership for the inner-city church at 4000 28th Avenue South in
Minneapolis was 900 in about 1950. The new church of Oromo immigrants
from Ethiopia may reach that figure soon — if it has not done so already.
“Sunday you can’t get a parking space within six blocks of the church,”
Tollefsrud observes.
The Oromo call their bustling house of worship Our Redeemer Oromo
Lutheran Church in Minnesota, reportedly the largest of five Twin Cities
Oromo churches. Lively Ethiopian worship is a world apart from the earnest
grind of Norwegian hymns. The Minneapolis church is significant globally,
hosting back-to-back annual meetings of the International Oromo
Evangelical Churches Spiritual Conference on Mission and Ministry in 2007
and 2008. In July it drew 1,200 attendees.
The Oromo (uh-ROH-moh) are the largest language group in Ethiopia.
Thousands have come to the United States since the 1970s to escape
persecution in Ethiopia. About 12,000 Oromo live in the Twin Cities.
Oromo Evangelical Church in Minnesota began in the same way the earliest
Christians started — as a home prayer group.
So church goes on —Tollefsrud’s trust in that point was crucial for longtime
members at Our Redeemer who faced the challenge of letting go.
“Her leadership during that time helped the congregation frame it in a way
that was really important for them,” says the Rev. Sally Ankerfelt, once
interim pastor at Our Redeemer and now co-pastor at Minnehaha
Communion Lutheran in Minneapolis. “They were helping to give life to a
congregation that was growing.”
When Our Redeemer began sharing its facility with the Oromo in 2005, the
new church’s greater numbers soon became evident. Oromo Lutheran has
approximately doubled in membership since that time. “They really needed
the space,” says the Rev. Ankerfelt, “and we wanted to make sure that they
had the space to grow.” Adds Tollefsrud: “It became manifestly apparent to
us we had to move on. We were in the way.”
Our Redeemer paid off the last $12,000 of its mortgage and formally handed
over the deed to the church to the Oromo June 5, 2007. Our Redeemer
became a guest in the Oromo church for seven months.
The final service for Our Redeemer Lutheran Church was January 13, 2008.
The ending procession carried out a few items of great meaning to the
departing parish, including a Bible and crucifix. Oromo parishioners soon
respectfully bore the crucifix and other items back into the sanctuary. “God’s
Word will not die in this place,” someone said, according to the Rev.
Ankerfelt. She calls the careful restoration a “symbol of that new life that was
taking place.”
Our Redeemer women worried about their kitchen, of course. The Oromo have
made changes. It’s “very different,” says Tollefsrud, “but it’s how they want to
have it. It’s no longer our kitchen, but it’s their kitchen. It’s not going to be
the same.”
About 45 Our Redeemer members transferred to Minnehaha Communion —
including Tollefsrud, after six decades as a member at Our Redeemer.
Tollefsrud faces changes of her own. She turns 84 in April. The longtime
nursing instructor at St. Olaf College still serves as a parish nurse, focusing
on Our Redeemer transfers at Minnehaha Communion.
“My plans are to continue in parish nursing as long as the Lord gives me
strength,” says Tollefsrud. “The day is going to come when driving is
something I shouldn’t be doing.”
A time also comes when congregations can put down their duties. “We need
to do all we can to permit immigrant groups to serve the Lord in their way
and to minister to their people in their way,” says Tollefsrud, “and to move
over and give them a chance.”
Death engenders life. “Giving of oneself, dying in a certain way, can give way
to new life,” says Ankerfelt. “We can trust God’s work in that, though we may
experience a certain death — and that’s really what had to happen — we can
witness new life.”