The members of Olivet Congregational United Church of Christ in St. Paul used to believe housing issues were easy to fix.
“At the beginning of our involvement with Project Home and Interfaith Builders (Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity), we assumed that homelessness was a temporary issue and that efforts to build homes and to contribute to food shelves would solve the problem,” says Olivet member Pat Peterson. “As the years have gone by, we have seen the numbers of homeless people grow so dramatically that we know that homelessness cannot be eliminated within the current system.”
Seeking solutions to homelessness meant the congregation would need to step up their involvement. This meant advocating for political and structural change, which would not be easy because it could often mean discouragement, but Olivet knows the struggle is worth it. “We must continue our involvement; when we are in touch with our less fortunate neighbors, we become more spiritually whole ourselves,” says Pastor Michael Wasylik.
Olivet may have not initially understood the depth of the issue of homelessness, but they have a long history of working for the common good. In the 1960s, then-pastor Roger Brooks worked with other clergy to integrate St. Paul. The clergy distributed postcards to residents in neighborhoods near the church encouraging residents to sign a pledge that they would welcome persons of color to be their neighbors. “This was a campaign for integrated neighborhoods and against the practice of redlining,” Pat said. In January of 1967, the names of some 1100 residents appeared in the St. Paul Dispatch, a public symbol of neighbors standing up for fair housing.
Social action at Olivet is not limited to housing. Besides their work with Project Home and Interfaith Builders, Olivet sponsored Hmong refugees, worked for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in society and partnered with the Dakota tribe of Crow Creek to build homes.
As Olivet discerned about joining the collaborative, they decided to use storytelling to find out how housing issues affected the congregation. Pat tells the story of a young lawyer sharing why homelessness was such an important issue to her. “She confessed that when she was eleven years old, her own family came into peril as both her college-educated parents lost their jobs within one month. They were only weeks away from losing their home when the mother found a job.”
This traumatic event inspired her to make sure everyone has a home. “The impact of this experience has stayed with our friend throughout her adult life, motivating her to work for tenants’ rights and fair, affordable housing for all.”
The telling of stories made the issue of homelessness real and tangible to the members of the congregation. “These testimonies have made homelessness more visible to us so that we cannot ignore it. We are more open to welcoming people who come to our door, and are using the skill sets of our congregation members to counsel and advise people to find help,” Pat says.
Pastor Michael would love to see other congregations in St. Paul join the collaborative. “There are 90 congregations involved in Minneapolis and the western suburbs, but just three so far in St. Paul. There is strength in numbers, and we can be successful as we turn out people to talk to legislative leaders about funding.” He adds that congregations do not need to have all the answers to join. “Beacon will meet you where you are. You don’t have to have immense amounts of subject knowledge or money. Beacon sponsors workshops and classes to teach you what you need to know.”
With Olivet now a part of the collaborative, the congregation is closer to the vision their forbearers had for Olivet a century ago. “As our church structure was built in 1907, church leaders imagined a building that could bring together a house of worship and a community center,” Pat says. “We continue to work towards that vision in 2019.”
Seeing that homelessness and housing is a structural issue that isn’t easily solved, Olivet now sees its role as taking unjust systems apart. They yearn to bring people together and hope that, by working with persons who experience homelessness. “We will allow ourselves to be changed through our contact with them,” Pastor Michael says. “We feel that this is how we can serve our community and break down the divisions that exist in our society, closing the gaps between people in our neighborhoods.”