Stories of Renewal: Christmas in August

Date posted: Wednesday 15 November 2017

In the beginning of 2017, the Saint Paul Area Synod distributed 11 micro-grants to congregations wishing to pursue a renewal opportunity. Congregations dreamed up ways to renew themselves that included community outreach, worship renewal, and engaging congregants in challenging conversations. Stories of Renewal is a blog series about what these 11 congregations have been doing with their micro-grants.


I’ve always wondered about the Apostle Paul’s skills when it comes to “Tent-making”… Did he learn this trade on the side as a backup in hard times? Or when Temple Litigation and Council positions were lacking sufficient funds to pay his salary? Was it something he simply took a liking to during his junior high years when he was given his first taste of choosing an elective course, to be fit in after lunch, and before “Proper Stoning in the 1st Century?” It seems to me, that this trade helped him not only pay the bills but also to connect him to the broader community in ways that no council position or temple lawyer could.


Even though it was called “Tent-MAKING” I imagine that much of his time was spent in “Tent-REPAIRING" - as in the fixing of a rip here or a broken zipper there. Maybe he even got involved with an occasional broken pole or bungee cord. Nonetheless, wherever he found himself, whichever shore he blew up onto, I’m sure that he could plug into the community, given his skills and lend a helping hand in some real tangible ways.


Mending the Tents of Lauderdale

I’ve been searching for a way to identify with and somehow make my peace with Paul. Our project at Peace Lutheran has done just this. Christmas in August (in our 13th year) is our annual program to get out into the community of Lauderdale and mend some tents - or in our case, houses. We hand deliver flyers to each "tent" in Lauderdale announcing that Peace will pay for all materials and bring the labor to repair anything from overgrown gardens to leaking roofs. From its humble beginnings, we’ve been willing to do anything with, for, on, or under the tent of anyone. After all, the object was to simply give away our remaining funds before our imminent closure. We wanted to somehow engage our neighbors in a meaningful way that delivers a sacramentally tangible gift. On the very first weekend event in 2004, after distributing by hand 700 individual flyers, we had three (that's right - three!) tents that came forward and accepted our generous, freakishly odd, this-has-to-be-too-good-to-be-true offer. In the end, neighbors willingly volunteered alongside our misfit construction crew of mostly amateur painters, landscapers, concrete mixers and tree trimmers.


Next-door neighbors from all sides of the tents we worked on craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the hammering, painting, troweling, weed pulling, and laughter. Imagine: neighbors coming together to help each other without fear of one another, or whether they would be able to afford the work. They accepted our labor without signed guarantees that the work would last, but only a promise that we would return if it did not and commence with another weekend of joy and sweat together. It feels a lot like the fabled days of yesteryear when the community came together to meet one another's needs, without the fear of being sued or taken advantage of.


13 Years

A lot has happened in the last 13 years, and we are always learning.


We are still being called. We’ve learned to not only trust our neighbors but, to depend on them and they’ve done the same with us. We make house calls year round for those who have nowhere to turn.


The number of tents that we’re invited to work on has increased to as many as 40 in one weekend. We average about 50 volunteers on our annual weekends.


We’ve found ourselves working on a failed furnace two days before Christmas in one elderly person’s basement. They had been living with the temperature below 45° for weeks. We’ve been called to tents where half of the power has not worked in decades or the only way to flush the toilet is by filling a bucket from the tub.


Even though we do not have a car ministry, neighbors have dropped old and broken cars at the church like alley cats delivering prized mice, hoping that we might resurrect them. Once they are resurrected they can continue making it to work, to the store, or to pick up their grandchildren.


Some nuts and bolts

When we encounter a problem with somebody's dwelling that we have no expertise in, we seek out neighbors that do have the skills and are willing to teach us or take care of it themselves. When we are unable to meet the needs in this manner, we stay connected until the problem is solved in one way or another.


In order to keep costs down we dumpster dive. The number of roofing companies that do not bother returning from a job with half a roll of tarpaper is staggering. The same is true for shingles as well as plywood and siding. Through Craigslist there is no end to the amount of free toilets you can get that people get rid of because they've decided to change the color or style. So, whenever we can get high quality materials at a reduced cost or free, we do.


We do not charge anyone for anything. However, if the tent-owners or their adjacent neighbors wish to give us a donation towards the work we do, we don't run them off. In this manner, we cover the costs of our materials by at least half each year and sometimes more. The other way is through grants, such as the synod's renewal micro-grant, and fund raising events throughout the year.


This last year we worked on 17 different homes: toilets, landscaping, building a new retaining wall, building a new backyard fence, tree trimming, painting, replacing siding that is rotten, fixing grab bars and towel racks, repairing the rot in a front porch deck, and hauling garbage. The items listed do not begin to tell the stories of each tent owner.


A new porch for Ruth

Ruth came to us about 10 years ago. She's been retired for a while as a nurse and recently celebrated her 80th birthday. She lives alone and would not be able to stay in her home without our yearly and sometimes monthly help. This year she called us over to take down a dead tree in her front yard, which we did. As we were leaving, she mentioned that there was a soft spot in her front porch deck where she always kept a table (to protect herself from falling through, we found out later). Upon investigating we found at least 20 deck boards that were rotted all the way through.  Various sizes and shapes of plywood covered over the most precarious. We told her this is unacceptable and that we would have to replace it all. She said she only had $100 to spare and she knew this would not even begin to come close. After a prolonged and agonizing wrestling match on the front lawn that lasted through the night we prevailed against Ruth…she did however knock our hip-joint out of socket leaving us with a limp. In the end, Ruth has a new front porch deck. Yeah Team! Cost: priceless.


Paying it forward

Suffering from depression and a suspicious view of religion, this retired couple found it very difficult to trust anyone. After an arsonist burned their garage down five years ago which resulted in the hospitalization of one of them, we have been slowly working to build a relationship. This wasn't easy. In the past, they would not even allow us on their property to leave a flyer. After four wrestling matches on their front lawn we ended up in a draw. We told them we would not let them go until we rebuilt their retaining wall which was jeopardizing their foundation and the neighbors’ safety. The crew worked for two days moving 5,000 pounds of crumbled concrete block and rebuilding with landscape timbers which now look beautiful and, even better, will be functional for decades to come. At the end, they gave us a check for $2100 as a donation and thank you. Their whole job cost $400 to complete. This leaves us $1700 to pay forward on Ruth's job as well as a number of others.


It is through generous gifts like these as well as the grant that has come from the Saint Paul Area Synod that makes these relationships and the work we all do together possible. Thank you for believing in our wrestling matches and in the storied lives we've been blessed to enter.


Blessings and Peace,


The Rev. David Greenlund

Peace Lutheran Church, Lauderdale