Sept. 11, 2022, marked the last day of service for a while at Calvary Lutheran Church (3901 Chicago Ave.). It looked a little different on this day, mostly celebratory, a little bittersweet, with Brass Solidarity leading a musical procession into and out of the church, former pastors and congregants giving thanks, George Floyd Square (GFS) community members offering testimony and preaching, a presentation following food and fellowship, and a documentary crew filming the whole thing.
Calvary is doing what few ministries would. They are downsizing their space while expanding their service to the community – by making room for affordable housing.
Calvary is partnering with Trellis and Simpson Housing Services to convert Calvary’s education building and roughly half of its church basement into housing units. A brand new apartment building will be built in the parking lot next door. In all, 41 housing units will be created, many of which will have three or more bedrooms. Fifteen of the units are reserved for supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Several keys make the project “deeply affordable,” according to Trellis Vice President of Housing Development Dan Walsh. First, there is 100% project-based rent assistance, which enables them to serve an “extremely low-income population.” The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority awarded Section 8 rent assistance vouchers, and Simpson secured “housing support,” a rental and living subsidy for the supportive housing units.
“Everybody that lives here will only pay 30% of their income towards the rent,” said Walsh. “So, if their income is $100, they’ll just pay $30 towards the rent.”
They also put a formal income restriction on all the units to be at or below 30% of the area median income, and they’ve added a land use restriction to prevent any future building owner from converting to market rate units or other use of the property. The restriction is in place for 55 years, but Walsh envisions it being in place for much longer.
“We’re more than 30 years old, and our mission is to keep housing affordable indefinitely, so I hope that Trellis is just as strong in 55 years, so then we’ll sign another one,” he said.
Calvary will become one of the tenants, and the Calvary Emergency Food Shelf will return to operate in the non-housing area of the basement. Other plans for the space make the project unique, as well. Inside the sanctuary, a room divider will be installed to create a community space at one end and a place for worship and a small kitchen at the other. The stained glass windows and the church’s exterior will not change (the existing buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places), and the banners on the bell tower and outer wall will stay.
In collaboration with the community, the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center is creating a public art sculpture for the courtyard between the church and education buildings (see sidebar).
Call to action
Conversations within Calvary about what to do with their excess space had been underway for several years. For Shari Seifert, a Calvary member since 2010, it was really important to think about their values, including valuing and doing what’s best for their neighbors. Rather than just sell to the highest bidder, they began exploring the possibility of creating affordable housing.
Then came spring of 2020 – the pandemic and the very public murder of George Floyd down the street.
According to food shelf coordinator Melissa Brooks, food distribution, which had evolved into a free grocery store focused on customer choice, moved “back into bags and out to the corner of 39th and Chicago.”
“When George Perry Floyd was murdered, people came from all around to this neighborhood to grieve, process and witness with the George Floyd Square community in Minneapolis. After the fires and looting closed many stores, our increased visibility in the neighborhood led many neighbors from near and far to Calvary,” said Brooks during the Sept. 11 service. “Our congregation and the surrounding community stepped up with time, money and lots of donations of food and household items, coming in every day. The need that was already present in the neighborhood became more visible with the lines of people and cars at our distribution as word spread of the sharing of food that we were doing.”
Other needs became evident, as well. Chris Van Meter, a 10-year member of the church, said being a block away from where George Floyd was murdered, “really cemented us, gave us a chance to open up to the critical needs.” He remembers when media used the space during the Uprising to recharge – their batteries and themselves.
“One day there was a woman who just needed some peace,” Van Meter recalled. “She was from one of the networks, and she sat down at the piano, and she just played for 20, 30 minutes. She had not had that solitude in quite a while.”
Calvary responded in a multitude of other ways as protests continued. Seifert recalls being met with many “yes”es to requests for support that came in the form of people setting up tables, bringing masks, food and water to people, nurses showing up to give emergency care, creating a rapid response team in case emergency shelter was needed.
Speaking to the congregation, Roosevelt High School teacher and resident of George Floyd Square Marcia Howard recalled being walked through the building where there were plastic tubs for if they’d get doused with teargas. There were snacks, charging stations and clothes if people needed them. She said the question had to be asked of the higher ups whether they could use the church as sanctuary, and they said, “Yes.” That if anything were to happen on that block, everyone could find safety and shelter at Calvary.
“I don’t think that people outside of south Minneapolis understand the significance of this congregation saying ‘Yes, we in fact, open our doors,’” said Howard. “That did not mean everybody here was on 38th St. But what they were sayin’ was that 38th was welcome here.” This was met with a robust applause.
“We were outside,” said Seifert. Soon she heard of neighbors meeting in the streets and started showing up herself. “The group evolved into the most amazing community, a beloved community, that gets more right about being a good neighbor, liberation and justice than any church I’ve ever been a part of,” she said. “I mean, we’re workin’ on it.”
In many ways the housing project is a continuation of that work. It demonstrates a “tremendous care for neighbor,” said Seifert, while at the same time addressing racial disparities in housing and in income. As a real estate agent herself, she spoke to the value of determining the highest and best use of the land.
“I think we found it,” she said. “I think this is the highest and best use of that land.”
Van Meter sees it as a chance to change public perception of the neighborhood.
“It’s gonna give us a chance to hopefully draw people in and see that this community’s not just worth salvaging,” he said. “It’s beyond that. There’s confidence in it again.”
Delivering the sermon together, guest Rev. Jeanelle Austin, executive director of George Floyd Global Memorial, and Pastor Kjell Ferris touched on themes of love, rest, the responsibility to care for one another, helping others reach their fullest potential and building a flourishing community.
In designing the project, Walsh took to heart a sentiment shared with him by Howard: this development needs to be “of the community and for the community.” That meant considering who was going to live there, the quality of the spaces and how it was going to be managed. One of the things he’s especially proud of is they’ve allocated funds from their operating budget for a half-time position for a services and activities coordinator for all units. Although they’ll work for Simpson, they won’t be attached only to the 15 supportive housing units. They’ll make sure all of the residents are connected to community resources.
Wendy Wiegmann, Simpson’s associate director, is excited this position will be built in. She envisions a lot of families on site, kids’ activities, movie nights, as well as formation of a resident council who will decide what activities to offer, how to build community in the space, and how best to use money in an annual budget. Even more, Wiegmann is excited to be able to be of service in south Minneapolis, where Simpson originated 40 years ago.
“This is where people want to live. People want to stay in this community. They want to be able to afford to live in this community and to be a part of it,” she said. “And I’m just really excited to be able to partner and offer them assistance and service to keep people here.”
In closing out the sermon, Rev. Austin initiated a call and response, so familiar out in the streets: “Tell me what community looks like” and “Show me what community looks like.” It was met inside the sanctuary with a loud and resounding: “This is what community looks like!”
Renovations in the existing space are expected to take nine months, with construction of the new building complete a few months later. In the interim, Calvary will worship at Iglesia Luterana San Pablo/St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (2742 15th Ave.). The food shelf is closed while they move and expects to reopen in a temporary space in mid-October. For updates, check the Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/calvaryfoodshelf
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