Church’s new life; ‘congregation’ outside its walls

The first time the Rev. Kelly Chatman stepped into the pulpit at Redeemer Lutheran Church 17 years ago, he looked out at his new congregation — 30, maybe 35 people at the most — and got a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“I wondered if I had made a mistake,” he said recently.

After 25 years spent mostly in education and church administration, Chatman had decided to try his hand at being a local church pastor.

He had walked away from a prestigious and comfortable position as the director of youth ministries in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Chicago headquarters to take over a struggling church in a distressed neighborhood in Minneapolis.

Many years earlier, he had served briefly as an associate pastor in Oregon, but this time he was heading his own church.

And it was not an auspicious beginning.

On his way into the building that morning, he couldn’t pretend that he hadn’t seen the drug dealers doing business on the corner across the street.

“I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here at this stage of my career?’”.

“I wasn’t even sure how long they would be able to keep paying my salary.”

Soon, Chatman changed his perspective.

“I decided that the congregation wasn’t the 35 people sitting in the pews,” he said.

“The congregation was the 4,000 people who lived in the neighborhood.

Once I reframed it like that, it helped me see that the church needed to be a physical presence on the street.”

And what a presence it has become. Redeemer, through its nonprofit community development organization, Redeemer Center for Life, literally owns, if not the street, the entire block the church sits on — and more.

More importantly, it has had an extraordinary impact on the lives of people in the Harrison neighborhood of North Minneapolis, a racially diverse, mostly low-income area near the city’s downtown.

A beacon of hope

“We have been able to change the narrative about North Minneapolis within the church, the neighborhood and the larger community,” Chatman said.

As the church’s website declares, Redeemer is “a beacon of hope in the Harrison neighborhood of North Minneapolis.”

Over the years, Redeemer and the Redeemer Center for Life have launched a

  • cafe,
  • bike repair
  • coffee shop,
  • 16-unit apartment building,
  • another seven apartments over the cafe,
  • home that houses Lutheran Volunteer Corps members,
  • storefront that has been converted into the Living Room,
  • gathering space for everything from health clinics to civic meetings.

The church also has built two single-family homes that were sold as part of an effort to support affordable housing.

“Between Redeemer Church and Redeemer Center for Life, we’re responsible for more than $1 million in economic activity in this neighborhood annually,” he said.

As for the church itself, worship is livelier and more crowded than it was on Chatman’s first Sunday, but the neighborhood continues to be Redeemer’s primary focus.

About 90 people now attend Sunday services, and 250 are listed on the church’s membership rolls, but Chatman still insists that the congregation is more than just the Sunday faithful.

“There are people in this neighborhood who call this their church who have never been inside the building,” he said. Continue reading


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