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Alive with memories: The people and communities of Walker Community Methodist Church
Sometimes a place is more than just a place, and a building is more than just a building. The Walker Community Church was a grassroots hub of community, spirituality, activism and art, and held in its walls a history of potlucks, community meals, church sales, meetings, organizing, politics, pancake breakfasts, dance, music, theater, and advocacy for a countless number of causes. The old building with the fluorescent painted sanctuary, bright banners drawn by children and floors that creaked every time you took a step, had space that glowed in the light through the stained glass windows and all sorts of strange nooks and crannies. All of it was full of love and creativity and leftist ideals and peace and hope.
“It was the most amazing experience to watch that place burn,” said Sandra Spieler, artistic director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. “The first hour I just cried uncontrollably. The fires were eating this building and eating all these memories — not just memories in my head, but coursing through my body somehow.”
The fire that destroyed Walker Church took with it the meeting place of many organizations — Occupy MN, Committee to Stop FBI Repression, Communities United Against Police Brutality, Women Against Military Madness, the MN Coalition for a People's Bail Out, Women’s Prison Book Project and many others. Some, such as CUAPB, lost computers, scanners, and many records, as they had their offices there.
Learn more, help rebuild communities
For a full history of the church from its very beginnings, go here.
If you'd like to help organizations that have lost their office space:
The Walker Nonprofit Recovery page at GiveMN will support three small social justice nonprofits that were tenants of Walker Church. Beneficiaries include Communities United Against Police Brutality, the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, and the Welfare Rights Committee. You can also contact organizations directly:
• Communities United Against Police Brutality — email mgresist [at] minn [dot] net
• Committee to Stop FBI Repression
• Women's Prison Book Project
You can contact organizations directly If you have space, office supplies, computer equipment. Also please feel free to leave a comment below with your organization's information.
The groups that used the space come from a long line of community groups, grassroots organizations, and theater companies that have used the space. KFAI got its start in the church, and the building was the site for meetings for local organizing for the 1970s Cesar Chavez/United Farm Workers lettuce boycott, and for organizing against Honeywell. Theater companies such as At the Foot of the Mountain, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and the Palace Theater all performed there. In the Heart of the Beast, originally called the Powderhorn Puppet Players, first began using the church as a studio space, and that was where the Tree of Life puppet was created — an iconic puppet still used in MayDay celebrations. Music groups, such as Ancestor Energy, played there. The space was used by political campaigns, includingLinda Berglin, and as a sanctuary for refugees and immigrants. In recent years, HECUA (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs), the RNC 8 Defense Committee, Twin Cities Indymedia, and many others have found a home there.
The Beloved Community
Walker Community Methodist Church was at the center of so many memories for artists, activists, community organizers, and people within the progressive community. But you can’t really talk about how that started without mentioning Pastor Brian Peterson, who was the driving force in opening up the doors of the church to so many different groups.
“He had this vision of what it meant to be a church — totally grounded in the lives and concerns of that particular community,” Spieler said.
“There was a spark from Brian that was shared by many people because it did continue after Brian died,” she said. The pastor died suddenly in the 1980s, and his death created an energy that rose in many people, Spieler said. “Brian was a firebrand. But he was also so sweet. I got to see his sweet side, because I was there so much, because I was so young. He believed in people, he believed in being a sense of community. That phrase the beloved community — he just totally lived that and believed that.”
Toward the end of the Vietnam War, the church rented out the space to the Quakers as a draft counseling center, according to Kim Doss Smth, Executive Director of WAMM. Because the sanctuary was in use, the congregation met in people’s homes. But after the war, when services began to be held inside the church again, it remained a church that embraced leftist ideals.
Doss Smith said she wasn’t into religion in a big way. She was brought up Lutheran, but had been absent for a long time. “After the war, I needed a place to reconnect," she recalled. Brian Peterson allowed Doss Smith and her friend to have a community garden space, and then the congregation invited the two women to a sing-along- with a list of songs including Bob Dylan’s “I shall be released” among other such songs. “The place touched our hearts,” she said. “Brian also got us into activism right away.”
Her husband had left her, and she had three small children. Walker Church was a haven for them and the people that lived in the neighborhood, she said. “You always found a place,” she said. “It was a community.”
“There was a lot of tie dye,” Doss Smith said. “Brian would start with something from the bible, and talk about how it translated into peace and justice, and what we needed to do. These were exciting times. People wore whatever. It was a colorful church. We grew extra food to feed the people in the neighborhood… Walker Church is one of those places that affected history so long and really shaped a Minnesota viewpoint for four decades easily.”
“To say that it’s a significant building for me is an understatement,” Spieler said. “It really was a foundation for me coming to the city as a young woman and the theater, beginning there in my 20s.
Doors Wide Open
The Powderhorn Park Players (later to become In the Heart of the Beast) had a corner of the basement. In the last hours of the fire, Spieler crawled around to see the windows where the puppet theater was. It had been made into a room, after the puppeteers left, later becoming a sanctuary for women from El Salvador, and then a man from Guatemala. The windows “were glowing in this inferno,” she said.
Spieler would often spend hours and hours in that building. “I remember one time. At the Foot of the Mountain was doing a show at the time- There was a big overstuffed chair on the stage,” she said. “I don’t know what I was wrestling with, and I remember finding myself upstairs and the building was completely empty and I sat in that chair and wept. Somehow the chair was a cradle for whatever I was working through and I just felt how this building had been such a cradle — holding people in their beginnings, in their epiphanies, in their deaths, rites of passages, weddings, baptisms, all the meetings, all the arguments, all the community initiatives that were forged in the sanctuary.” The night of the fire, Spieler and others kept saying to each other “it’s just a building,” but she said it actually was much more than just a building. “That building became a character with these wide open arms, and a door that never closed —this door that had this incredible fire coming out of it.”
Bain Boehlke, artistic director of the Jungle Theatre, once lived in the church for a time, and also lived in the parsonage next door. He directed several shows with the Minneapolis Ensemble Theatre, which he characterizes as being part of the “Underground Revolution.” While much of that theater’s work was “all pounding on the floor,” Boehlke, who was acting at the Children’s Theatre at the time, agreed to direct them if he could do classic plays. MET’s Joey Walsh, “was always begging me to come to the Walker and do something scary. So one day I was at Black Forest, and I said all right, I’ll come over and do Macbeth.” Shakespeare, of course, wasn’t the fashion in the 1960s, but Boehlke directed the show, creating a rustic theater from the ruins of an old country barn that they tore down, as well as utilizing telephone poles. After Macbeth, Boehlke directed The Seagull, Happy Days, The Glass Menagerie with Minneapolis Ensemble Theater before it disbanded, and also directed Journey’s End, a World War I French drama, with Theater Perspectives, a little theater company he started.
Ben Kreilkamp, who is in Boehlke’s production of The Seagull in 1972, said sometimes it was hard for the old parishioners who’d visit and ask nicely for the theater to “clean it up a bit,” he said. “Bain brought in wheelbarrows of dirt to cover the stage, over which he put fake funeral grass and then for the interior scenes we overlaid that with beautiful Persian rugs, borrowed from a rich lawyer and damaged in production. We were vandals and renegades back then, making pretty wonderful theater, or maybe I was just young.
Later, when Kreilkamp was with the Palace Theater, he remembers the actors lowering themselves by ropes hanging from the rafters (they’d broken through the ceiling) for a production of Desperados. Kreilkamp also did a belly dance on the stage for Everyman, done in sign language. “I know all the corners of the main space because we'd turn out the lights and play ‘animals’ for hours, an exercise in which we attempted, pretty successfully, to eliminate human reason,” he said. “Hardcore experimental ensemble performance, just trying whatever we thought of trying. The light through those windows at night was haunting and beautiful. Walker Church was a veritable creative funhouse, but this was before it regained its footing as an actual church with weekly worship services…The kids used to come watch our plays every night for the naked bits. We named a play The Thirty-first Street Hawks for their gang, but that was before real gangs moved in, at least in that neighborhood.”
“The Walker was a Methodist church, but the Methodist church encouraged some very political activist congregations,” Boehlke said. “The Walker was a renegade church. There were guitars and symbols and bells — they deconstructed things. They tried to make church an experience there for people who like a religious setting but wanted it to reflect the current movement, especially the peace movement, and the women’s movement.
“The Walker Church burned down,” Boehlke said. “That’s so incredible to me. That was such a significant building to me in my creative life and now it’s gone.”
An Alternative Voice: KFAI
In addition to constantly embracing new modes of thinking, peace and justice, and art, Pastor Brian Peterson was also a crucial part of getting KFAI established, according to Jeremy Nichols. An advocate for an alternative to mainstream media, Peterson joined the board of directors of Fresh Air Radio, now known as KFAI. The station was built on the second and third floor of the building, and carved out a space in the attic. The bathroom, unfortunately, was on the other end of the building, so you’d have to play a very long song if you needed to use it, Nichols said. They were associated in 1977, and paid rent to the church. “They were good at letting us be late,” Nichols said, “and letting us build the space that we needed.”
“It was just a great home for us,” Nichols said. “It came out of the culture of the sixties and early seventies that was embedded in Walker Church and also the West Bank and the co-op movement.” Nichols himself is the founder of the Wedge Co-op, and has been involved with varying aspects of progressive culture over the years.
The Next Generation
Though Brian Peterson died in 1989, the community that burgeoned under his tenure continued to thrive, and a new generation of artists, activists and liberals found a home at Walker.
Willow Cordes-eklund, grew up next door to Walker Church. Her family bought the house that was the parsonage 21 years ago, and ever since they’ve been going to Sunday church services. Her father is the piano player for the church, and always had a key. She had her eighth grade graduation party there, and countless fundraisers for various organizations such as the Rainforest Action Network, and went there the day of her first protest in 1995. She also helped paint the banners — of water creatures, earth creatures, the sun, and moon, the stars and planets that hung all around the sanctuary — which she made in Sunday School, with Sandra Spieler as her teacher. She danced on the stage, performed there, and gave a sermon there. She was rehearsing at Mixed Blood for Bedlam’s 10 Minute Play Festival when she heard the news that the church was ablaze.
“Powderhorn is so vibrant, so politically active,” Cordes-eklund said. “And Walker Church embodied so much of that… It’s not just a building. It’s a life.”
Correction 6/2/2012: Corrected last name to Kim Doss Smith.