Lowry Avenue churches to merge

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Two United Methodist churches in Northeast, Grace (left) and Trinity–which are both on Lowry Avenue, east of Central–have voted to merge, and that’s likely to affect not only the two congregations, but also at least six other groups who occupy space in their churches.

Pastor Greg Garman of Trinity United Methodist, at Lowry and Taylor avenues NE, said that Trinity’s congregation has known for about three or four years that something needed to happen, because their numbers are declining.

“It’s a nation-wide phenomena,” he said. “It’s also an interesting time to be a pastor. I have tried to do a neighborhood-focused ministry, and I know that Trinity has touched close to 1,000 lives. There’s some great stuff happening here. We want to figure out what God is calling us to do in this neighborhood.”

Garman said that a new pastor, Sarah Lawton, will take over the merged church. Garman is retiring June 13, and Pastor Duane Lookingbill, of Grace, is going to another church.

Garman said he has been in the ministry for 25 years, and has been at Trinity for the last seven.

The merger process has included a series of congregational votes, he added. “On Dec. 6, we voted to continue the conversation. On May 16, the two churches were voting on whether or not to adopt a functional merger and start worshipping as one church on June 27.”

Cynthia Sowden, Grace UMC communications director, said the vote at Grace was 51-1, and at Trinity, it was 22-6.

No decisions have been made about which church will be the “home” church. “That might be more than a one-stage decision,” Garman said. “There are several options, and there might even be a third location. We have a parking lot and they have none. They have an elevator and we don’t.”

The churches have been working with a consultant and a denominational officer, he said, and the congregations have formed a representative “cluster council” of lay persons from each church.

Five non-profit groups meet in Trinity’s two buildings (the building on Lowry includes the sanctuary; the one farther north houses offices and classrooms). They are Living Hope Ministries, Northeast Dinner Bell Meals on Wheels, the Minnesota Literacy Council’s English Language Learners program, and a Nigerian church, Immaculate Church of God.

“Arrangements are being made for everyone who wishes to continue, to be in this building for the foreseeable future,” Garman said. “We may close the old [sanctuary] building, but the newer one will remain open.”

Grace also shares its building with a group that runs a day care center.

How did it happen, that two United Methodist churches are so close—within a few blocks—to each other? (Grace is on Lowry at Cleveland.)

Garman said that Grace was formerly an Evangelical United Brethren Church, while Trinity originated as a Methodist Episcopal church. The two denominations merged in 1968.

The tenants

Eileen Hafften, executive director of Northeast Dinner Bell, Inc., Meals on Wheels, said that Trinity has housed Dinner Bell for 36 years. Although they have somewhat outgrown the Trinity space and have been looking for another location, money is an issue for them.

NE Dinner Bell has about 200 volunteers, although some people work more often than others. Many have once-a-week shifts, but others only work once a month, or a couple times a year. “We also have groups that participate,” she said. “We deliver meals to about 115 to 120 people a day.”

NE Dinner Bell gets the food from a restaurant, already cooked; it comes packaged in tins. Volunteers heat it up at the church and pack a lunch bag for each client that also includes other items such as milk, fruit, and a dessert.

Three years ago, she said, the program sustained a $30,000 permanent budget cut (their yearly budget is $250,000, which includes food and equipment). “We have been doing fundraising to try to make up the difference,” Hafften said.

So far, she said, they haven’t found a new location that offers the amenities they need (and have at Trinity), such as a set of convection ovens, a good-sized refrigerator, a small freezer and three eight-foot tables.

Steve Moen, pastor of Living Hope Ministries, said they have used Trinity’s two buildings since 2003. “It has been a good location for us, but we’ve outgrown it. We’ve been pretty much using the whole facility. We do our tutoring, serve our meals and have our kids’ programs in the sanctuary building, because there is not enough room in the education wing.”

He added, “With five organizations sharing a building, there are always problems that come up. We are going to be proactive about looking for a new space, although it is hard to find something. At this point, everybody [sharing space at Trinity] has a lot of questions.”

Deborah Cushman, Human Resources and Facilities Director for the Minnesota Literacy Council, said that they will soon be meeting with church officials to discuss their options.

“This is one of our most successful sites. We’ve gathered some data and looked at residential zip codes, and found that a large number of our students live within walking distance of the church.” She said the Literacy Council offers English Language Learners (ELL) instruction and also has a children’s English school for pre-schoolers, ages 3-5. “It’s a family literacy program for children whose parents are enrolled in ELL. It’s about kindergarten readiness and also child care.”

Cushman said they have three paid staff members and between 10 and 12 volunteers “on any given day.” Right now, they are in a holding pattern and haven’t made any decisions about moving, she added.

“We’re waiting to find out what the church intends to do with that property. We’ve had a good partnership with them.” Cushman said they have been at Trinity UMC for about eight years.