After 17 years as the senior minister at Plymouth Congregational Church, Rev. Dr. James Gertmenian will retire in 2015. Heavily involved in community service and social justice issues, Gertmenian has helped spearhead projects to alleviate homelessness, create affordable and supportive housing for people with mental illness and chemical dependencies and, along with the congregation of the Plymouth Church, has been centrally involved in the push for marriage equality.
Growing up in Pasadena, Calif., Gertmenian witnessed his church take part in the civil rights movement and from a very young age felt a deep connection to the church, most notably the elements of social justice espoused in liberal theology. He recalled knowing that the church was a place where he was safe and loved, and this together with a positive role model in the minister had him interested in the ministry from an early age.
Today, it would not be a stretch to guess that Gertmenian has had an influence on many in a new generation of progressive Christians. He says working with young clergy as part of the yearly Emerging Leaders Institute, which brings youth clergy from around the country to talk and network, is for him one of the most exciting elements of his job.
The enthusiasm for working in the Minneapolis community, on the part of both Gertmenian and the Plymouth congregation at 1900 Nicollet, is evident in their extensive list of accomplishments.
“The work of this church in affordable housing and homelessness had been one of the focuses of our life for the past 12 to 13 years,” Gertmenian said. “We began by buying the nursing home across the street and converting it to 40 units of supportive housing for people with mental illness and chemical dependency.”
While initially there was tremendous opposition to the plans, Lydia Apartments celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Those that opposed the plan feared it would be detrimental to the community, but Gertmenian feels that on all accounts it has benefited the neighborhood. The refurbishing of the Lydia Apartments was the beginning of a long and committed endeavor to house homeless individuals and families, which transformed into a collaboration of congregations, today known as the Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. To Gertmenian, the Housing Collaborative has been one of the stellar achievements of the Plymouth congregation. It continues to create affordable and supportive housing and now includes over 50 congregations throughout the Twin Cities.
As co-chair of a 2006 commission combating homelessness, Gertmenian helped produce a 10-year plan for Minneapolis out of which Heading Home Hennepin, the umbrella for many homelessness efforts, was produced. He acknowledges that though the poor economy hasn’t helped their efforts, there have been large strides toward their goal of ending chronic homelessness.
“We still see the goal of ending chronic homelessness in our city as being a reachable goal,” he said.
A particular effort that stands out to Gertmenian is the Currie Avenue Partnership, a collaboration between the faith and business communities of downtown, which was produced after a conversation he had with Cathy ten Broeke, who now serves as the state’s Director to Prevent and End Homelessness, regarding the above-capacity conditions in Currie Avenue shelters. The program raised $350,000 in a matter of weeks, and is now state-funded. In the first months of the partnership 150 individuals were housed from the Currie Avenue shelter. This kind of collaboration with businesses, civic groups and congregations is not new to Gertmenian. In 2009, he was given the Interfaith Award for Commitment to Interfaith Understanding from Temple Israel. Additionally, he is a member of the Board of Trustees and Executive Committee at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where he earned his Doctorate of Divinity degree. Beyond local activism, Gertmenian as well assisted in the development of a Pediatric Health Care program overseas.
Plymouth Congregational Church has been on the forefront of the liberal theology movement since its beginnings in 1857.
“People are reclaiming the tradition from those who would interpret it narrowly and literally, and sometimes punitively. ... The new Christian progressive movement, I think, is one of the most exciting things happening in my lifetime,” he said.
Gertmenian touched upon a turning outwards of the congregation: “It wasn’t enough for us to just be safe here, but that we had to share the idea. ... In the last 15-20 years, this congregation has really put its arms around this community.”
Beyond embracing the Minneapolis community, the Plymouth Congregation has enjoyed a close relationship with Gertmenian, standing by him through difficult life events and all manner of ups and downs.
“I love it so much and love these people so much, and this congregation has been so good to me,” he said.
As for retirement, he says there are no concrete plans, though whatever he chooses to do, it will involve his 2-year-old grandson.
“I am going to be really sad to finish here. It’s been the richest time of my career.”