From holy swedes to sweet hip-hop

Share this:
September 13, 2004 // UPDATED 4:03 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Elliot Park church tries new music -- and even live animals -- to reinvent itself as 'a church without walls'

An old Swedish Lutheran church in Elliot Park might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of hip-hop venues. Members of Augustana Lutheran Church, a 300-member congregation at 704 11th Ave. S. near the Metrodome, may challenge that assumption.

A handful of church members, led by senior pastor Elizabeth Beissel, are working to cultivate an arts and music scene that's relevant to the community. Besides hip-hop, they want to attract jazz musicians, folk singers, poets and other contemporary artists for a free music series to liven up the church.

Dolores Bergstrand, one of the members of the church's arts and music task force, said the group doesn't want to limit its focus to contemporary Christian music. They want to host other mainstream local musicians that might reach a larger audience.

"We want to nourish our congregation and attract other people in the neighborhood, too," she said.

Beissel, 65, is leading the effort to transform the church into a neighborhoodwide resource and arts center that's useful for residents regardless of their faith backgrounds.

One of the goals is to capitalize on the neighborhood's changing demographics. Elliot Park is in the midst of a condo construction boom that is expected to add more than 1,000 new residents over the next few years. According to the 2000 Census, the neighborhood is already home to 6,476 people.

Beissel recently conducted a series of neighborhood interviews to gauge needs and come up with a list of projects to broaden the church's outreach efforts in Elliot Park. Besides the music series, which will likely be launched sometime early next year, Augustana is planning several other initiatives, including a neighborhood farmers' market.

Other ideas include creating bike clinics to help residents with repairs and maintenance, and hiring an immigrant advocate to help the neighborhood's large East African immigrant population.

The vision for Augustana is a bold one and coincides with efforts of other Downtown congregations to raise their public profiles and appeal to wider audiences in the face of dwindling memberships.

Loring Park's Wesley United Methodist Church, 101 E. Grant St., for instance, held a communitywide meeting in August to brainstorm ways to improve the church's outreach efforts.

Beissel -- a former pastor at Central Lutheran Church, one of Downtown's largest congregations at 333 S. 12th St. -- said Augustana's new push to become more engaged with the neighborhood is consistent with the church's 138-year history.

A small group of Swedes and Norwegians founded the church in 1866 and went on to establish the Willing Workers Society, a group that worked to improve conditions for women who worked in the city's mills and factories. The society opened a settlement house for the woman near the church and later started a program for neighborhood children.

To Beissel, one thing is critical to Augustana's efforts: "We need young people."

Former Augustana pastor William Berg, 93, who led the church between 1965 and 1980, agreed with Beissel, adding that the congregation needs to turn its attention to those outside the church's door. "We need to be a church without walls," he said.

The congregation is largely made up of seniors. As for younger members, the church has about 30 families with children and teen-agers.

Augustana member Pete Lefebvre, 54, a University of Minnesota plant biology professor who lives in Roseville, is among the younger congregants.

Lefebvre started attending the church in 1989 with his late mother who lived at Augustana's nursing home. He's kept coming to the church because of its commitment to community service.

He's among those working on the task force assigned with revitalizing the church. "We need to be more welcoming. There's no place to gather and mingle," he said.

Take a tour of Augustana and it's easy to see what Lefebvre is talking about. With the exception of a spacious 1,175-seat sanctuary modeled after a church in Sweden, Augustana lacks a community room; most of the meeting rooms are stark with 1950s-era furniture and posters.

The church's education director, Bill Krannich, is charged with making Augustana more family friendly. He's among those urging older members to think creatively and find ways to attract newcomers.

He's organized youth trips and recently set up a pen pal program for church children and orphans in South Africa. One of his wackier ideas involved staging a live nativity with animals outside the church to capture the attention of Vikings fans near the Metrodome.

"We have to be outside these walls," he said.