This spring, Luther Seminary students and staff participated in two Pray and Break Bread trips to meet local faith leaders working collaboratively to end discrimination and poverty in the Twin Cities. In listening, sharing personal stories, asking questions and praying and eating together, our groups were both deeply challenged and encouraged. Each of our hosts provided us with valuable perspectives on ways Christians can engage in seeking justice, from fostering transformative conversations within congregations to participating in legislative advocacy and direct action.
Twin Cities LGBTQIA Advocacy
On Saturday, March 28, a small group of Luther Seminary students and staff visited three communities with decades of rich experience in LGBTQIA advocacy. The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual. At the ECLA advocacy organization ReconcilingWorks, we got first-hand experience with the transformative conversations they facilitate around faith, sexuality and gender. We talked about the value of humor, listening, and building personal relationships to approach what many fear as a deeply painful topic. We worked through exercises designed to help people understand gender, cis/straight privilege and the marginalizing language of “normalcy,” including ReconcilingWorks’ clever videos on “clunky questions”.
Next, at All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church, we learned from the story of a denomination founded decades ago as a safe space for gay Christians. With Pastor DeWayne, we explored the tension between the ongoing need for sanctuary and LGBTQIA Biblical studies in many communities, and the responsibility of affirming churches that have achieved a good deal of equality to advocate on behalf of other marginalized groups. “God can handle this...The church is going to be just fine,” Pastor Dewayne said, reminding us that it is up to us not to defend the church, but to plant seeds of the gospel everywhere!
Our group stopped for fantastic tamales at Midtown Global Market, and got not just a tour but prayer from market manager Baba Letang, an ordained revival pastor from the Caribbean. Finally, we joined the faith-based organizer at OutFront Minnesota, Michelle Dibblee. She described how OutFront’s statewide community organizing works for LGBTQIA peoples’ rights, and how people of faith are involved as volunteers and advocates. In their office, we saw signs of the day-to-day hard work of advocacy, from strategic planning notes to their help desk for victims of domestic violence. The office walls are also lined with photos of community celebrations for important new laws that protect LGBTQIA people, a constant reminder of why they do this work.
In all three places, we heard a call to listen specifically to transgender voices and LGBTQIA people of color. We heard a shared sense of urgency both for immediate action (like creating policies against discrimination) and the vital, slow process of building community relationships and engaging in difficult conversations. All this work takes immense courage, perseverance and creativity.
Twin Cities Housing Justice
Our second spring trip on April 17 was to visit three groups that work to address homelessness and hunger in the Twin Cities. At Lutheran Social Services’ Center for Changing Lives in South Minneapolis, community engagement specialist Thomas Mueller and director of spiritual care Lucy Mungai immersed us in conversation about our own personal experiences of food and housing. They asked how often we discussed housing or food in our seminary classes (rarely, if ever). However, as we continued to share our experiences, it became clear that we could and did connect these basic aspects of our lives with our faith and our commitments as Christian public leaders. This conversation became a powerful basis for our learning about CFCL’s own work to create housing, employment, food access and supportive community in their neighborhood.
With staff at Beacon Interfaith Housing, we visited the Nicollet Square apartments for youth experiencing long-term homelessness. Marlys Weyandt gave us a tour to learn more about Beacon’s holistic approach to supporting youth in finding jobs, finishing school and navigating independence. Then, director of new projects Anne Mavity shared how Beacon’s congregational organizers work with ordinary people in faith communities to help create more equitable housing. Even when adequate funding is available for much-needed housing in the Twin Cities, she explained, many community members may initially resist it due to perceptions of homeless teens and adults as dangerous. She highlighted the importance of faith-based advocacy, sharing stories of a Lutheran church successfully organizing parishioners to challenge local authorities who were reluctant to approve a desperately needed new housing center for suburban homeless youth.
Our final visit of the day was to Shobi’s Table, a creative food truck ministry with, by and for people living on the margins in St. Paul. As we rolled dough for pizza pockets with Shobi’s Table volunteer Noah, Pastor Margaret shared the story of her call to ministry. She and Noah shared examples of the intersecting challenges of living in poverty: the deep inequity in access to food, resources, transportation, employment, treatment for addiction and mental illness, and more. In response to a student's question about how to dispel myths about people experiencing homelessness, Margaret spoke powerfully about the danger of labeling the “deserving” vs “undeserving” poor. “I’m not here to fix anyone,” she said--including those with stereotypes about people living in poverty. Instead, she and the team at Shobi’s Table seek to be a loving community in which visitors, be they housed or homeless, experience God’s grace and human connection.
A common thread we heard during Pray and Break Bread this spring was the many ways that local people of faith use community organizing, advocacy and creativity to respond to the gospel in their context. Another theme was the hunger that seminary students, staff and faculty feel for more concrete ways to learn about and engage in our community. As we drove home from our days together, our van was full of ideas on how we could continue to learn and take steps to live in solidarity with our neighbors. We are currently working on finding funding for more community learning events in the next school year, and are hopeful that Pray and Break Bread will continue to be a powerful part of Luther Seminary experience. And we are hopeful that these longings to love and serve God in loving our neighbors bear much fruit.