NWC churches in the Twin Cities and beyond serve surrounding communities in wake of COVID, civil unrest

Within a few short months, life in the Twin Cities flipped from status-quo to unrest. To start, a pandemic resulting in a stay-at-home executive order altered daily life. Then, old wounds, hidden under the surface of time, were reopened in the cities when George Floyd died at the hand of a police officer.

In the days following, peaceful protests rose up throughout the city. But at night, smoke rose from burned buildings and torched cars, glass littered the sidewalks from smashed storefront windows, and alarms blared as rioters wreaked havoc.

The destruction rendered parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul unrecognizable. The nightly rioting left people afraid and desperately needing safe places to find relief. But looted stores were boarded up. Public transit halted. People had nowhere in their neighborhood to buy groceries and supplies. They were scared and needed help fast.

Three Northwest Conference churches, right in the epicenter of all the chaos, quickly chose to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the people in their communities. Sanctuary Covenant and Community Covenant of North Minneapolis and Destino Covenant of South Minneapolis responded with emotional, physical and spiritual aid—while other churches in the Conference supported their efforts.

March 2020

COVID-19 forced churches to look at ministry differently. The Rev. Luke Swanson, Lead Pastor of Community Covenant credits networking as the primary reason they were able to begin live-streaming services and figuring out ways to stay connected virtually.

The Rev. Edrin Williams, Senior Pastor of Sanctuary Covenant, saw a need to bring awareness and education to the community.

“We talked a lot about what it means to be a good neighbor and how we could serve one another and curb the spread,” Williams said.

At Destino Covenant, the exposed iniquities created a catalyst for the church to go out and make connections.

“Even though we needed to close our physical doors, God actually opened spiritual doors,” said Mauricio Dell’Arciprete, Destino Pastor and NWC Coordinator of Latino Ministry.

May 25, 2020

Protocols in place, the churches were navigating ministry amid the virus. Then, on May 25, George Floyd was killed. All three pastors had seen similar tragedies happen within their communities before, and they knew instinctively that the response was not going to be good.

Church staff and congregations came together in prayer. This moment required leaning in, and by living into their unique church missions, each was able to touch hurting people with the love of Jesus.

Sanctuary Covenant Church: Be Present

“There was already a very strained relationship between the community and the police,” Williams said. “We wanted the community to see that we were angry and hurting as well and absolutely demanding justice happen as quickly as possible.”

Church staff and congregation members began grilling hotdogs and handing out water, providing space for people to be together and express their displeasure and outrage. Once the riots started, they were able to assess needs quickly.

“A part of our deeply-held theological beliefs is that the spiritual and the physical are deeply connected,” Williams said.

Word spread that SCC was providing lunch and that they needed more BBQ supplies. It quickly became bigger than people dropping off simple supplies for grilling. Minneapolis residents were looking for places to donate and help. Vehicle after vehicle began dropping off food, diapers, cleaning supplies and more. Literally overnight, Sanctuary pivoted from a neighborhood BBQ to becoming a major food distribution site.

Donations of food and toiletries as well as money continually poured in. Determined to serve everyone who came, there were many “fishes and loaves” moments where little provisions stretched to meet numerous needs resulting from damage to over 85 local grocery stores.

However, one day, the church did not have adequate supplies so they decided to place an order for everything they needed which came to $15,000. Within an hour of making the large purchase, Williams received a call from a local high school football coach. His team had raised $15,000, and he was on his way to drop off the check.

More miraculous stories followed. In mid-July they weren’t sure if they would have enough supplies for everyone. The last person in line received the very last bag of food.

Sanctuary wasn’t alone in their ministry. Churches, organizations and individuals from the metro area, as well as greater Minnesota and Wisconsin, organized food drives and teams of volunteers to help. Over 10 Covenant churches from outside Minneapolis rolled up their sleeves to assist.

Some drove hours to bring teams of volunteers and supplies. Others donated their monthly benevolence and compassion funds. Some of the volunteers became regulars.

Adriana Forsman, Youth Pastor at Dassel Covenant, came six consecutive weeks with students.

“Even though out here at Dassel Covenant Church we live in what is sometimes called ‘the middle of nowhere,’ after the protests in late May we wanted to get involved in doing something to help our state, and the city of Minneapolis specifically,” Forsman explained. “We sent out an email to our church family explaining there were a few Covenant churches in Minneapolis stepping up as a distribution center for food and necessary items, and the response was immense.”

Dassel raised approximately $4,000 to purchase food, hygiene products and other necessary items for distribution.

“I was honored to take point on spending those donations by purchasing and bringing the supplies to three different churches: Sanctuary, Destino and Community. But I did not do it alone,” Forsman said. “Over the course of the six times I dropped off donations and volunteered at Sanctuary Covenant, I had seven students and four adults join me. It was an absolute joy and blessing to serve both our fellow churches and the community.”

When Sanctuary concludes their food assistance program on Aug. 28, they will have served between 500 and 550 families each time they opened their doors with over 2,000 volunteers having served.

Community Covenant Church: Creating Places

“North Minneapolis is an under-resourced community with a long history of political and economic neglect,” Swanson said.

The immediate need was to bring people together, albeit online, to have what he calls “courageous conversations.” The church established a nightly prayer time and worked to create places of healing and hope.

“People needed some space to touch Black rage and Black trauma, and create a place where people could have community together, talking about their experience with racism,” Swanson said.

When the rioting began, it was the first time many long-term residents felt afraid in their own homes.

“I personally had seen white nationalists with swastikas on their arm in the neighborhood,” Swanson said. “We came together to push against fear.”

Then, when the neighborhood grocery store burned to the ground, the church found its next opportunity to help.

Stemming from needs found in the church’s ministry for teen moms, staff made a request on social media for diapers, formula and baby supplies. By the next day, organizations were dropping off pallets of food and provisions. Pews were pushed out of the way and the church sanctuary transformed into a food and emergency supply distribution center.

Swanson began networking with other churches and community organizations.

“At one point, there was a line down the street of trucks and cars wanting to drop supplies off,” he said.

The small church body saw God’s miraculous provision in the generosity of others and volunteers from surrounding Covenant churches.

“We couldn’t have pulled this off without the partnership of other people and churches,” Swanson said.

Destino Covenant Church: Making Connections

“Many people have said, ‘COVID-19 was a huge hit, but what destroyed us was the riots,’” Dell’Arciprete explained.

Growing up in Argentina, Dell’Arciprete had seen rioting as a child and he remembers the feelings of uncertainty and terror. Destino’s diverse congregation includes people from Ecuador, Mexico, Columbia and Costa Rica, who had experienced similar trauma.

“When everything started here, those feelings and memories came back,” he said.

On the Tuesday evening following George Floyd’s death, Dell’Arciprete sent out a text to church leaders, asking them to pray.

“I knew something was going on in the city. There was spiritual warfare and God was moving in my heart,” he said.

Many of his congregation members live within blocks of the George Floyd memorial and did not feel safe. Church families opened up their homes to take in those who lived where the uprising was taking place. Many men stayed in their homes to embrace whatever would happen, while sending their families away.

“It was beautiful to see the church moving,” Dell’Arciprete said.

Businesses that had just reopened were destroyed, and the physical and emotional needs of the community increased. The church began a food shelf and created a new ministry for children.

“The little ones were suffering a great deal,” Dell’Arciprete said. They started providing “boxes of hope” filled with toys, activities and devotionals as a way to remind kids that they are loved and not alone. Destino also established a community needs task force to help with financial needs, such as rent.

“We’re trying to focus on spiritual, physical and emotional needs of all ages. It’s a big task but we’re doing our best,” Dell’Arciprete said.

Amid all the difficulties, one church member was diagnosed with a tumor in her left eye. After six prior surgeries, this new prognosis meant a very tough and expensive operation. The church prayed and fasted diligently for her healing. When she went back to the clinic, the tumor was gone.

“This unexpected miracle in the midst of everything else felt like God said, ‘I’m still at work!’”

New Partnerships

Crisis has a way of revealing those things that really matter. It unites people around a common cause, and it breaks down barriers. Countless churches within the NWC rallied behind Minneapolis, sending money, donations and people-power to help.

“Alexandria Covenant Church is grateful and has been blessed to partner with Destino Church in providing food and other essential services during a time when people in their neighborhood have been greatly impacted by the rioting and unrest in South Minneapolis,” said Pastor Trinity Opp. “We had the privilege as a pastoral staff to visit with Pastor Mauricio, see the affected community and pray with him and others. We plan to work closely with their task force to provide ongoing support for the community.”

The work has required long hours and has been physically demanding, but the God moments and encouragement from sister churches helped keep Sanctuary, Community and Destino pressing on.

“Looking down the street, seeing volunteers calling on other volunteers to please come help as pallets were being dropped off. The level of different churches wanting to do something in this moment to me was miraculous,” Swanson said. “I don’t think we could have done it without Plymouth Covenant Church. They really responded. So did Brookdale Covenant Church and Bethlehem Covenant Church (Minneapolis), and Grace Covenant Church.”

“So often we feel detached from the problems and realities of those living in urban areas, but we knew this was a chance to partner with members of the body of Christ to help hurting people through both prayer and physical gifts,” said Kendall Churchill, Pastor of Calvary Covenant Church in Evansville, MN.

A request went out on a Tuesday for donations that would be driven down on Thursday morning.

“In that window, we received gifts from our church and community to fill our car and raised $1,500! It was particularly touching to have one set of parents explain their decision to give sacrificially, and how their middle school kids gave generously from their saved allowances too,” Churchill said. “When my wife and I volunteered that day, it was overwhelming to not only see the level of need but the impact the church can have in serving the hurting and power of churches supporting one another. … “We might be small, but together we are strong; the problems of our world are big, but Christ is even greater.”

Missions Reinforced

Throughout all the difficulties of the past five months, each pastor saw their church’s established missions reinforced.

“Although this has been a bigger project than we’ve ever done before, the spirit of it aligns with who we’ve been trying to be since day one,” Williams said.

That sentiment echoes throughout the three Minneapolis churches. They intend to continue focusing on servant evangelism by serving and sharing the love of God within their communities.

“This has been a clear and tangible example of what is possible when we lean in and trust God, and do the things we’ve been talking about forever,” Williams said. “We have a solid theological foundation, and now practical experience, for us to continue to serve the community in really tangible ways.”

Story By Katie Honnette. Additional reporting by Ginny Olson, Director of Youth Ministry.