In Minneapolis, churches pursue the hard work of reconciliation
Twin Cities pastors work long-term toward racial harmony following a chaotic summer of protests and riots
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One Saturday each month, Pastor Terrell Walter meets with a group of local church leaders to eat lunch and worship together. The participants, all part of the Evangelical Church denomination, come from various ethnic backgrounds: Walter is African American. Other pastors are Caucasian, African American, Liberian, and Hispanic.
At September’s meeting in a Latino church, a pastor preached in Spanish on reconciliation, reading from 2 Corinthians 5:19. Afterward, everyone ate homemade tamales, laughed together, and prayed.
Involvement with this group is one of several ways Walter hopes to help bridge racial divides here in Minneapolis. The 54-year-old pastor of Beacon of Hope Church also hosts a multi-racial Zoom meeting each week, encouraging prayer and steps toward unity. (At one recent Zoom meeting, a gray-haired participant explained her plans to tell her drug-dealing neighbor how Jesus helped her stop using cocaine.)
After George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer here on May 25, the city erupted in protests and riots. Demonstrators decried police brutality toward minorities, with the most extreme protesters looting shops and setting fire to buildings—including the 3rd Precinct police station.
The protests rippled to other cities throughout the country. But months later, Minneapolis has remained a focal point for the country’s racial tensions. Angry demonstrators sometimes still gather in the city, as they did in October after police shot a black man in Philadelphia. (At one point the crowd briefly chanted, “No justice, no peace. Shoot back at the police.”)
Amid such tensions, Pastor Walter is operating with a sense of urgency, and not just because of the protests: He is fighting stage four cancer that continues to spread, even though he’s already outlived doctors’ prognoses by well over a year.
Despite his health, Walter meets with whites and blacks throughout the week. “How can a white person relate to us if we are never together?” he says.
Twin Cities pastors like Walter are doing the hard work of racial reconciliation in neighborhoods still grappling with violence, poverty, and police-community tensions. Long after race demonstrations have faded from the nightly newscasts, local church leaders here are continuing efforts to build bridges between neighbors and promote peace.
Less than a mile from the corner where Floyd died stands Jubilee Community Church. The church’s pastor, John Erickson, a father of seven, lives nearby. The son of missionaries, he grew up in the Phillips community of south Minneapolis and 10 years ago helped start Jubilee. Its congregation of about 250 is predominantly white and includes some black members and one black pastor. Impoverished neighborhoods, largely Latino, African American, Somalian, and Native American, surround Erickson’s home and church.
Erickson says living in the city has never been harder. During the summer’s rioting, with police and fire protection scattered, church elders called him asking what to do as flames crept up their block. After a homeless encampment sprang up in nearby Powderhorn Park—an estimated 560 tents—discarded needles and trash littered the area for months. Police statistics show Minneapolis has had more murders this year (79 through mid-December) than any time since 1998. Stray bullets hit innocent people, including one man outside Erickson’s front gate this summer. Another person on his block had his vehicle carjacked. (In November alone, 125 carjackings occurred in Minneapolis.)
Several months ago, Erickson’s church met at a park for outdoor services and was greeted by messages painted on the sidewalk: “Hail Satan,” “God is gay,” “LEAVE.”
The worst is when good people do leave. “A number of families have decided it’s best to move,” says Erickson. “Some from our church, some from other churches. Some good police officers are resigning.” A woman recently called to tell him four random bullets had come through her bedroom wall. She’s moving.
But Erickson also mentions positive changes. Last year, an abortion facility in the area closed, and soon New Life Family Services , a pro-life pregnancy resource center, will open nearby. Across the street is Hope Academy, an urban K-12 Christian school (and a WORLD 2012 Hope Award regional winner), teaching 550 students. In the same building as Jubilee, a food pantry called Jericho Road gave away 127,000 pounds of food in May after the riots.
Erickson explains what he says his neighbor and former pastor John Piper told him was the solution to racial upheaval: “It’s a humble, confident teaching of the Word of God week by week, and trusting God uses that.”
That’s where Erickson rests. He still connects with pastors, joins prayer walks, talks with neighbors, and holds all-church meetings to discuss current issues. But his priority is preaching and encouraging members to invite people into their homes, foster and adopt children, and serve the needy.
Beacon of Hope Church, which Pastor Walter has led for 11 years, is 8 miles north of Jubilee. Although he wanted to keep living in his house behind his church, he moved, mostly because of the growing number of released sex offenders living next door—one started photographing his kids jumping on the trampoline. The day his house sold, a bullet pierced the wall while his children played inside.
Walter grew up on Chicago’s South Side, became a drug lord and gang leader, and ended up in federal prison, where he became a Christian. He knows what it’s like to be pulled over by police—both when he was doing crimes in his past life, but also several months ago by a policewoman. It turned out the church van’s tag had expired, but Walter had never felt so nervous around police before. “It’s not about wrong you do,” he said. “It’s how someone perceives you.”
When the Saturday worship-and-lunch meetings began, he started inviting other Christian leaders to join. Sammy Watkins, Walter’s friend and a chaplain at Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul, said he initially thought the group, though well-intentioned, would fizzle. Now he regularly attends and brings visitors. He learns group members’ names: “That’s one small way you let people know you really do want to know them.”
Ironically, Watkins and Walter were once in rival Chicago gangs, though they didn’t know it until, in Minnesota, they compared pasts. Watkins, too, became a Christian in prison.
He says many of the minorities that come to the mission are angry and distrustful of police. Most lack father figures. Since he knows street life firsthand, the men listen to him: “Christ transformed my life. … That’s what I can offer them.”
Watkins gets frustrated when he plugs the mission’s new believers into local churches and they flounder because no one notices them. He hopes the recent racial upheaval encourages churchgoers to start a conversation when they see someone new or from a different culture.
He said he understands his men’s fear of police: He’s been wrongly profiled before and sometimes fights bitterness. Although 20 years ago he needed to be singled out because he broke laws, his life is different now. He described how, a few years ago, a squad car followed him to his former workplace at 2 a.m.: “I didn’t want to make any move to put my life in danger.” It wasn’t until gate guards assured police he belonged there did he relax.
In October, Watkins sat down with a white St. Paul police officer—a fellow Christian—for several suburban church roundtables. The two agreed police officers’ and minorities’ perceptions of each other are often the crux of many problems. They plan to keep talking.
Chris Monson, a local police chaplain and pastor of East Immanuel Church, arranged the discussions. Raised as a Scandinavian Lutheran, he’s been on St. Paul’s east side for 13 years, working in the multi-racial, religiously diverse Payne Avenue neighborhood, an area known for violence and gangs.
He and other pastors in the neighborhood meet regularly at Eastside Pizza over cheese curds, dipping sauce, and thick-crust supreme pizzas. They pray and strategize about how to meet neighbors. COVID-19 restrictions hamper them—for instance, the recreation center where they engaged youth is closed—so the group has to think creatively.
Monson’s church started hosting neighborhood hotdog outreaches. He always invites a few officers. At one hotdog fest, a cautious black youth started interacting with a white officer after Monson introduced them. Soon the two were admiring each other’s tattoos. “The walls came down a little bit that day,” says Monson.
At St. Paul’s Cities Church, Pastor Jonathan Parnell talks to members about the battle over words and slogans like “anti-racism” and “black lives matter.” He’s concerned that constant news and social media muddle people’s thinking: “How can we expect a devil-influenced world to solve the problem of the devil’s work, which is racism?”
His church’s “harmony task force,” created before the riots, helped pack and hand out hundreds of bags of groceries after the summer’s unrest. Some members mentor students and host neighborhood activities such as picnics.
Other approaches cast a wider net. Transform Minnesota is a statewide coalition of about 1,000 evangelical churches providing Biblical forums for complex issues like race relations. In past years, it has hosted trips to U.S. civil rights landmarks to teach the impact of racial inequality. Recently, it sponsored Justin Giboney, a political strategist, Christian, and Democrat, to discuss racial civic engagement.
The outside group Justice Journey Alliance has a presence in the Twin Cities, but some local pastors are leery of it. Its Beyond Words Movement, for example, promotes commitment cards asking for reparations to black pastors and calling for a “service of lament for complicit participation in racially unjust systems.”
Local pastors are also bothered by church leaders who show up only for photo ops when a news crew comes to town. They bristle at groups that flit to poor neighborhoods to set up a food truck, take photos, and leave. Local pastors say the key is willingness to stick around: They suggest suburban churches could help by developing relationships with urban churches, eventually having periodic joint services.
Seth Martin, pastor of the Brook Community Church in Minneapolis, was one of the first Minneapolis pastors to hold a multi-ethnic service between several downtown churches after the riots. Martin, who is black, talks with white pastors about ways to worship and do life together that don’t sacrifice authenticity for either race.
He agrees that pursuing racial and ethnic harmony is complex and slow: “Habits take time to change. We just have to be willing.”
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