Loaves and Fishes in Abundance
I am always surprised where I will find something about hunger and how we are called to help bring it [...]
Date posted: Monday 24 July 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.
In mid-September last year, pastors from Luther Memorial in South Saint Paul found themselves around a table at the South St. Paul school district office. At the table also sat the superintendent of schools, school counselors, the chief of police and the fire department, and representatives for mental health services in Dakota County. The community had just had the third trauma in the course of 45 days. Abuse, bullying, suicide and terroristic threats had all happened in the weeks before school starting and now we were approaching the start of the school year.
We sat around the table and discussed what support the community of South St. Paul needed, what risks we had of having another death by suicide, the realities of secondary trauma and the lack of a safety net in the community outside of the schools. We were all at the table together, committed to being present for children, families, and even elders of the greater community.
The chief of police told us that we just needed to start – whatever it was that needed starting.
So we did.
The biggest risks to the youth of South St. Paul are on days that they are not in school. With that knowledge, we developed Safe Place Youth Program. Safe Place was developed as a program that provides youth with a meal, community support, positive engagement, homework help, and fun activities on non-school days. We brought the idea to church council and they agreed to host it at Luther Memorial. The renewal micro-grant from the synod allowed us to be bold and host Safe Place during all of the gap days for the rest of the school year.
The program was listed on the district website as an option for families, and many more were invited by representatives of 360 Communities. At first, attendance at Safe Place was light, but they were kids that would have otherwise been home alone. Even though it could have been a day off for them, the Resource Officers assigned to the schools came to Safe Place to spend time with the kids. There is something wonderful about seeing a police officer playing Guitar Hero with youth from the community.
We’ve been learning a lot along the way. The limits were pushed at times as Luther Memorial Church adjusted to our building being open to children of the community and the managed chaos that could bring. We expanded our days and lowered our target ages as we listened and learned about the community needs. Community liaisons, such as 360 Communities, were also invited to come in and talk with the kids about issues such as bullying.
We intentionally did not have any faith-based activities so that people would not feel uncomfortable. Yet, there were still interesting moments. At the beginning of each Safe Place day, we give a tour of the church and explain rules. One morning a seven year-old boy who is a member at Luther Memorial, and had just been baptized the day before, came into the sanctuary and went to the baptismal font. He told the other four boys who were with him all about his baptism and what it meant and why it was so exciting for him. It was a beautiful moment of proclamation.
The word got out and a safety net of support and resiliency has begun to form. Throughout the year Pastor Patrick and myself have been back at the table with other community leaders to continue to care for the community and care for one another. We will be continuing Safe Place Youth Program into the 2017/2018 school year with an eye to deepen community outreach and listen to the needs of our neighbors. Because of Safe Place Youth Program, Pastor Patrick is serving on a Core Team working with the Humphrey Institute, Dakota County and other key leaders in listening to the community. I will be part of a group of 10 people looking at all the data from the listening sessions and making recommendations. Safe Place Youth Program has opened up some wonderful relationships and partnerships throughout South St. Paul and Dakota County.
Sometimes just starting is the hardest part, but in this case it made a difference and began to change a church in the process. We now have members saying that we are a church that is committed to our community and willing to try new things when there is a need. What that will mean continues to be revealed to us.
The Rev. Amanda Olson de Castillo
Luther Memorial Lutheran Church, South St. Paul