Small community, big change: Congregation meets needs with community resource center.
When St. Andrew’s Lutheran, a large church in the St. Paul suburb of Mahtomedi, decided to take a closer look at the neighborhood around it, big things started to happen.
The congregation already had a reputation for doing great ministry abroad, including Vision Slovakia and Vision Jamaica, when former pastor John Hogenson arrived in 2008. While working on the vision and mission of St. Andrew’s, he asked people what initiatives they thought the congregation should consider.
“They said, ‘We want to do more locally,’” says current executive pastor Sarah Breckenridge, ‘95.
After doing some outreach, the congregation found that they were unaware of the real issues facing their neighbors. “In 2008, there was the recession. We were surprised to discover that folks facing homelessness was a growing need in our area and we wanted to do something to help prevent that,” Breckenridge says. “[We had] families hit with divorce, loss of income, loss of net worth, foreclosures galore, were not sure how to make mortgage payments—and we wanted to do something. We were called to do something.”
In 2010, St. Andrew’s made opening a community resource center one of the three-year goals in its strategic plan. By March 2011, the dream was a reality. “What was going to take three years happened in four months,” Breckenridge says. “The congregation responded to a forum and people showed up with the means to fund it. They wanted it started immediately, before it got cold for the winter.”
As pastor, Breckenridge oversaw the project. But she needed someone to take calls and be a presence in the community. That’s when Liz Schreier heard the call to help.
“We wanted to do something. We were called to do something.”
“Liz was self-taught and figured out what to do and where to go when people called,” Breckenridge says. “She did a ton of case management and listened without judgment. The most important objective she had was to make everyone feel welcome. What sets us apart from other agencies is that people come in and know that they’ll be listened to.”
“Calls started coming right away, oddly enough,” Schreier says. “The need in the community was highlighted during church and the congregation started to talk about it. I attended a forum and felt compelled to be a part of it.”
She noticed that the suburban mentality was still keeping people from coming to the CRC. “Your first thought isn’t to find a shelter,” Schreier says, acknowledging that many people who needed the CRC had been middle class. Suddenly, she noticed more people in the church pews, in the grocery store and at sporting events that were using the CRC. “People don’t look like [what the stereotypical idea] of what homelessness looks like. People don’t know that you slept in your car and there’s no way to recognize it because they blend in.”
Schreier is now the executive director of the CRC. The attitude of those who work at the CRC is critical to the impact that the CRC has on the community. How people are treated matters.
“[The people who come to the CRC] are listened to without judgment and assured they are not alone,” she says. “We not only provide shelter, food and other basic need items but just as importantly, if not more, we provide hope! We can pray with our guests, do devotions with our guests and walk alongside them, as they work the plan we create together for a better life.”
That’s what the CRC can provide someone that goes beyond a government program or a service agency. The CRC does provide shelter, food and other emergency needs, but it’s also about the less tangible things.
“What we find most often is that they need someone to talk to, to feel heard,” Schreier says. “They feel very alone, lacking connection and community. We become like family.”
“This re-energized the congregation,” Breckenridge says. “They are proud of their church and that they can let their friends and co-workers know if they are struggling to stay in their homes, their church can help. And the outpouring of volunteers who want to be a part of its ministry has been a huge blessing. They love putting their faith into action in this way. And we need lots of volunteers, for everything from driving vans to making meals, from sorting donations and playing with children to sitting next to them at a computer helping them with job and housing searches, encouraging them along the way.”
“Some people come and have never been to church,” Schreier says. “But they leave the CRC and say, ‘This is what it means to be a Christian.’ It becomes pretty clear that at the CRC, people are living out their faith.”
How does Breckenridge reflect on the CRC theologically? “It’s about bringing good news to the oppressed. In Luke, Jesus gets thrown out of town, but I love the image of bringing the good news. You don’t just speak it,” Breckenridge says. “It’s in blankets and food and housing—and people hear it. People know that they can come in and be prayed for. They can be accepted. It was part of a dream and it’s amazing to see it come to life. Part of it is the Lazarus story, when Jesus says to ‘unbind him.’ We are in the business of unbinding people. They’re bound by something that is keeping people from what they can be to live in the promises of God’s children. That’s what got me on fire about being a part of this.”
St. Andrew’s has become the place that the county sends people to for housing and shelter assistance. More than 90 percent of homeless families who work with the CRC are able to move into more permanent housing within 34 days, compared to the 60-plus days that is the norm for most agencies. In just four years, the community resource center has become a valuable resource in providing real help, hope and healing to their neighbors in need. Last year alone, more than 5,500 free Thursday night meals were provided, 669 families received emergency food kits, 87 homeless families were given emergency shelter and food and 98 families were kept from homelessness.
The CRC has a food shelf for basic needs, job search assistance, a free community meal on Thursday nights and a nursery so that parents can receive support without the distraction of their child while talking to a staff member or filling out paperwork. They are always looking for people to donate their time and resources, since they are fully funded through donations.
“This showed that the key is in the partnerships,” Breckenridge says. “There was no intent to do all of this for ourselves.”
While St. Andrew’s would love to partner with other communities who are looking to do a community resource center for themselves, they realize that each context is different. “We are excited to share our resources and what we’ve learned, so other congregations can partner in making a difference around issues of homelessness in their communities. We really just started with a desire to start tackling the issue and a part time person to answer the phone and it just grew from there,” Schreier says.
Adds Breckenridge, “We’ve seen God’s fingerprints all over the ministry of the community resource center, making a difference in the lives of too many to count.”