NE congregation builds thriving community center

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May 23, 2011
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
Church breathes new life into former Holland School, creates hub for nonprofits

The old empty Holland School is now reinvented into much more: rehearsal space for a theater group tailored to at-risk kids, a workshop space on how to make healthy food for toddlers, and a food shelf that doles out more than a ton of food each month to 500 people.

When the Northeast Community Lutheran Church consolidated three dying congregations into the former Holland School 10 months ago, it also brought in other tenants that fit its mission to create a community center focused on faith, learning and service.

Now, the church is trying to sell its old building near the Dairy Queen on Lowry Avenue and land one more nonprofit or child care tenant to boost its operations budget. The church is still dreaming big: it would like to convert part of the massive south parking lot at 15th Avenue into a community garden, and an architect is drawing up plans to reposition a skylit atrium into a worship space — so the congregation doesn’t need to worship in the cafeteria anymore.

Pastor Craig Pederson said he’s seen his faith at work during the year’s transition.

“It’s incredible, one barrier after another we’ve been able to overcome and keep moving forward,” he said.

The church has offered much of the Holland School space at below-market rates, so it’s had no shortage of takers. In addition to the operations mentioned above, the Grace Center for Community Life also hosts a charter school, home school and music school.

“We have a lot of under-the-radar programs that aren’t affiliated with bigger organizations,” Pederson said.

Most churches get pretty quiet during the week, but that’s not the case at this one. On a recent Wednesday, kids from Fraser Academy were throwing balls in the gym and chattering excitedly in a walk down the hall. A building manager dressed in an “Oscar the Grouch” T-shirt greeted staff as they passed his way. The prior weekend, the cafeteria hosted the Holland Neighborhood’s annual “Hot Dish Revolution” fundraiser, which brought in about 200 people to sample the neighborhood’s best casseroles and listen to an Irish band.

One of the newest building occupants is a church that arrived two months ago. It’s a Hispanic congregation called Iglesia de Jesucristo Luz Divina, which set up an array of instruments at the front of a classroom. It’s located down the hall from Crosstown Ministries, which primarily serves an African American population.

Another new partner to the building is the brand new Urban Baby nonprofit, which offers free workshops to low-income families on nutrition for babies and toddlers. The nonprofit was founded by Michelle Horovitz, a former public defender. She said it’s important that kids don’t become addicted to sugar and salt at a young age.

“Five and 6 year olds are already exposed to so much junk,” she said. “We need to start doing things earlier, and developing their palates and taste for fruits and vegetables.”

When parents pick up their kids from church programming this summer, Urban Baby will offer classes on how to make fresh baby food and how to make healthy recipes that appeal to toddlers, such as a baked ziti casserole made in muffin tins.

Pederson said he’s looking forward to July’s popular basketball camp, summer arts blast and vacation Bible school.

“One of our stated goals is to get more reconnected to the neighborhood and do more outreach,” he said.

The church has a planning grant from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization to return some of the parking lot’s two acres of asphalt into green space.

The church is also working with an architect to improve the school’s west entry and build out a new sanctuary in the atrium. Pederson attended one of Holland School’s first open houses in 2006 — he was the only one who showed up — and saw original drawings of the atrium as an indoor playroom. He learned that as the school filled up, the atrium was subdivided into classrooms and topped by a false ceiling.

“They completely clipped off the view to the high space,” said Architect Paul Gates. “They kind of buried it; they mothballed it, essentially.”

The old walls came down a month ago, and the church hopes to finish the new sanctuary by Christmas.

The school’s other new tenants haven’t required quite as much retrofitting.

Fraser Academy is thrilled with the school’s gym and playground, and the 73-student school is currently working through a waiting list to potentially enroll 80 or 85 students next year. The school is open Monday–Thursday 11 months out of the year, and it has a heavy focus on individualized education plans and smaller classes of 12–20 students.

“The neighborhood feel is something that’s different from either of our previous locations,” said Director Linda Silrum, who relocated the school here from 45th & Lyndale. “Lyndale always felt like a busy street.”

Planet Homeschool moved here from a church facility in South Minneapolis. It’s a 12-year-old secular homeschooling co-op that allows kids to take classes ranging from filmmaking and ballroom dance to world history, French and botany. About 40–50 students are involved, and Leadership Team Member Ann Matthews-Lingen said the Grace Center gives the school a long-term place
to grow.

Down the hall, the two-year-old Passionate Productions group has a new home after bouncing between a few church buildings. Director Jennifer Howard said youth are meeting mentors, getting help with homework, and taking the chance to learn acting, prop-building or crew work in theater.

The list of building activities goes on: it hosts free monthly community dinners drawing 80 people a pop, and twice a year, it offers low-cost pet clinics to help families afford vaccinations. Staff have even thought about ways to reuse the school’s concrete reinforced roof.

“Last summer, we were getting situated,” Pederson said. “We’re excited this spring to get out and start meeting some neighbors.”