Our Name Is Bethlehem

Dan Gregory June 25, 2019

by Dennis Sanders, Content Specialist

For the Steering Committee of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in the Twin Cities, the challenge was agreeing on a date.

While their Minnetonka campus had hosted with Beacon’s shelter program for two decades, the Minneapolis campus was eager to host for the first time. The question was when. “We have a pretty strong program here with a variety of different activities and things going on for children and youth and outside groups that use our space,” said Ben Cieslik, Co-Lead Pastor. “So, allocating the kind of space you need to help families was impractical.”

Then, a lightbulb came on.  

“It kind of occurred to us that Christmas is a busy time, in the life of the congregation, but the building, outside of the sanctuary is not. A lot of our programming winds down and space becomes available.” 

So they decided to host during the two weeks of Christmas. It was a decision made spiritual rather than practical reasons. Christians recount the story of Christmas where the parents of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we not able to find a room in the town of Bethlehem. Mary ended up giving birth to Jesus in a stable instead of at an inn.

Because there was no room for Jesus in the inn, it made sense for a church named Bethlehem to offer room to people experiencing homelessness. “We thought: since our name is Bethlehem, wouldn’t it be cool for us to be able to share that there’s room for you here now,” Pastor Ben said. “So that imagery, that connection with the Christmas narrative is really powerful. Even though we knew there would be some challenges to find the volunteers, we said, this is something that we need to do.”

Meta Carlson, the Campus Pastor at the Minnetonka campus, remembers the steering committee meeting from a different vantage point. Beacon’s Executive Director Lee Blons and Congregational Organizer Kat Vann explained Families Moving Forward to the group. “Lee and Kat were doing a fantastic job of explaining what hosting looks like and what volunteers from the churches do and how it’s a real kind of in-the-flesh way to serve,” she says. “They happen to mention that the hardest week to sell was Christmas and they still didn’t have this Christmas filled. They explained the synagogue (Temple Israel in Minneapolis) takes those weeks.”

Pastor Meta recalls Pastor Ben’s reaction. “It was Pastor Ben who spoke up and said, ‘It’s kind of ironic that churches don’t have room on Christmas. And if our name was Bethlehem, and we don’t have room, what are we doing?’”

Bethlehem is unique among most congregations in the collaborative in that it is one congregation on two campuses, Minneapolis and Minnetonka. The two congregations joined in common mission in 2016. “When the Minnetonka campus was Minnetonka Lutheran Church, they started hosting Families Moving Forward more than 20 years ago,” said Pastor Meta. She sees the Minneapolis campus joining Minnetonka in this ministry as an opportunity. “It’s another way for people from both of our campuses to be together, which is awesome, and learn from each other’s experiences and volunteer in wonderful places.”

Advocacy is a newer ministry to Minnetonka, but the people are eager to get involved, especially with Vista 44, Beacon’s newly-announced supportive housing development in Hopkins. “People are excited about showing up in city council meetings and inviting the neighbors and having conversations with other community members,” Pastor Meta said. She shared her own experience serving on a research action team for suburban Hennepin County last summer, and the members of the Minnetonka campus were keen to get on board. “People asked really great questions and wanted to know, what does it look like to get on the bandwagon and support a project from the very beginning. So, some seeds were planted. “

Pastor Meta believes it’s important for the campus to hear about affordable housing in the suburbs. “Beacon’s conversations about supportive housing in suburban Hennepin County has been really important for people in our Minnetonka community to think about what does affordable housing look like in our backyard, and in our community the way we talk about race and equity and affordability and support.”

Bethlehem is working at finding ways both campuses can engage the issue of housing and homelessness through Beacon. “We’ve formed a Beacon leadership team at Bethlehem made up of people from both campuses,” Pastor Meta said. “In our relationship with Beacon in all kinds of social circles within both campuses, it is going really well. It’s something that a lot of people can get excited about, whether it’s visiting 66 West or taking a tour of Nicollet Square or going to one of the congregational meetings and getting fired up, serving on the Beacon leadership team, volunteering with Families Moving Forward or showing up at the Capitol. People like the variety of ways to be of good use to Beacon.” When the Minneapolis campus comes together to worship this coming Christmas season, Pastor Ben wants to make sure people in the pews know Bethlehem is hosting families. “I want them to be aware of why there’s a need to host people. I don’t want them to be disconnected from the reality that God decides to come among us and make his home with us. Our lives here and now matter and matter to God, and therefore, our lives should matter to each other.”

It makes sense that people know what the congregation is doing over Christmas. Their name is Bethlehem, after all.