Alem Asmelash, ’04 and ’02

Trinity Lutheran Congregation, Minneapolis; University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview

By Kelly O'Hara Dyer, Correspondent

As today’s church continues to evolve, the faith communities that Luther Seminary alumni serve include a number of immigrant populations that have come to the U.S. to flee war, civil strife and other problems, both economic and social.

Ministering to these individuals and finding ways to serve their needs requires both cultural sensitivity and an understanding of the unique challenges groups new to the region share as they begin to forge lives in a new land. 

Luther Seminary alum Alem Asmelash is another graduate who works intimately with a number of different immigrant communities, both as an associate pastor at the 140-year-old Trinity Lutheran Congregation in Minneapolis and as a chaplain at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.

Asmelash, who is originally from Ethiopia and was raised in Sweden, speaks six languages, including Amharic (the native language of Ethiopia), Tigrinya (the native language of neighboring Eritrea) and Swedish. He graduated from Luther Seminary twice, in 2002 with a Master’s in Theology, and in 2004 with a Doctor of Ministry.

Asmelash began work as a chaplain at Fairview in 2003, and was called to Trinity as a half-time pastor in 2004 specifically to strengthen the church’s outreach to immigrant and refugee families.

The church, which is located in an area that is home to numerous immigrant groups, now meets in Augsburg College’s Foss Center, after losing its previous building to a road construction project in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

“We are currently the only church in Cedar-Riverside, and the church has this vision not to be guarded within its own culture, but to go out like Jesus, outside of our comfort zone,” Asmelash says. “The church wanted someone like me who knows the culture and a little bit of the language. If you are respecting of the culture, they respect you back. [The immigrants] see me as one of them, so it becomes easier to reach out.”

Trinity and Asmelash have both worked to make new immigrants welcome in a number of ways. Today, for instance, Trinity holds services in both Amharic and English, a reflection of the fact that the area remains a concentrated immigrant neighborhood for East Africans.

“The majority of our immigrants are Muslims from Somalia. (We have) Ethiopian Muslims also,” Asmelash says. “What I do is act as a pastor for outreach ministry. I just hang around [in the neighborhood,] meet people, counsel people and I invite them to come to the church to worship with us. Many of them have come, even if they have the Orthodox religious background.

Trinity and Asmelash have worked to come alongside their community, in part by offering needed help and support to the children in the area.

“We have Monday through Friday homework help, and I bring the kids in for that, and our church also works to tutor the kids,” Asmelash says. “A number of University of Minnesota and Augsburg College students have been tutoring the kids and helping them with their homework. The kids often want to come [to the church], but the parents don’t push them to unless they see something good [that we can offer.]”

Another of the ways that Trinity and Asmelash practice their outreach is by providing a space for a dialogue between the Muslim and Christian communities.

“In the Muslim community here, they had a mosque in Cedar-Riverside that burned down,” Asmelash says. “The leader of the mosque no longer had an office, so we offered the use of our basement here at Trinity. I think that was very welcoming and respecting of their religion. When they finished [rebuilding] their mosque, in order to say thank you, they invited the community to visit and Trinity was there, too. Another of the things we did as a church, with Fairview Hospital, is to select 10 imams and we taught them how to visit patients in a hospital setting, about grief, about counseling, about coping with change and loss. We helped teach these very well respected imams those things, and [by extension], worked to reach the community through them. With Fairview, Augsburg College and Trinity, we are always working together to reach out to the community in Cedar-Riverside.”

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