Those who gathered Sept. 17 at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, Minn., experienced worship that was at once lively and solemn, sobering but hopeful, interactive while reflective. Indeed, this unique mix of emotions and tones is what has made Come Together events so powerful for those who have attended over the past year.
More than a dozen Come Together gatherings have been held across Minneapolis and St. Paul, uniting churches, faith-based organizations and individuals in a common goal. Created in response to ongoing local and national violence—including the July 2016 shooting death of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer—the monthly ecumenical events have brought people together to pray for peace and to act.
“This is about hope,” said Bonnie Steele, a member of St. Bridget Catholic Church, Minneapolis, and one of the founders of Come Together. “It’s an opportunity to pray and share our stories of how violence has affected each of us. Certainly because of the way we began [after Castile’s shooting], race is an intimate part of this sharing. People have a real desire to see healing and hope in our communities.”
While gatherings include many traditional elements of worship, such as prayer, songs and a message, other Come Together activities are designed to help people connect with each other. These have included neighborhood peace walks and small group discussions in the pews, answering questions like “Who is God calling you to be in 2017?” and “Where have you seen or experienced injustice recently?”
“This is about hope. It’s an opportunity to pray and share our stories of how violence has affected each of us.” — Bonnie Steele
Group members feel that in today’s political climate, the need for a safe space to talk about the issues affecting people is more important than ever.
“In these times, there’s something happening every few months,” said Jodi Harpstead, CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. “Instead of coming up with a response every time, we’re delighted to have this monthly vigil to bring our concerns to each time.”
Harpstead hosted a vigil following Castile’s death last year, and had been preparing to start an ongoing prayer series when she learned of the monthly Come Together events that were already taking place in North Minneapolis.
“Come Together began as a multicultural faith response of black, white and Latino people of faith in response to the violence occurring in the North Side community and also in response to the killing of Philando Castile,” Steele said. “When [the Lutherans] saw that we were out in the community peace-caroling and praying with our neighbors, they asked if they could join us, and we were thrilled. They have been an integral part of Come Together growing.”
Significant public witness
Events vary in size, with anywhere from 60 to 300 in attendance. Gatherings that take place after local or national incidents usually see an increase in turnout.
Each hosting organization has been able to contribute something unique to its worship, based on the personality and gifts of the area. These offerings have ranged from a Native American smudging ceremony to locals sharing their stories of living in the neighborhood.
For event hosts, organizing the gatherings has offered the chance to learn more about their community.
“It was an education for me in the city [in which] I’m living,” said Elizabeth Flomo, recruitment and outreach manager for Lutheran Volunteer Corps and affiliated pastor of Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill, St. Paul. Flomo re-familiarized herself on issues of local gun violence when her church hosted a vigil and prayer walk. “I saw it as an opportunity to engage my ecumenical partners and the neighborhood around me,” she added.
Craig Pederson, assistant to the bishop for congregational vitality with the Minneapolis Area Synod, recognizes the opportunity that Come Together has provided by bringing together people from different races and faith backgrounds. “It taps into something we don’t often experience,” he said. Flomo agreed. “I think, particularly given the historic whiteness of the ELCA, it gives an opportunity for deeper relationships with people whom we might see as ‘other,’ ” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to live more deeply into our partnerships and our cross-cultural and intercultural relationships. There’s a significant public witness to walk outside and say … God has created all of us together.”
For Justin Grimm, director for evangelical mission and assistant to the bishop for next generation ministries with the Saint Paul Area Synod, church is a natural place for people to come together. “The church is called to be at the place of intersection between faith and public life,” he said. “I think Martin Luther was pretty clear on that. We want to lift up the need for churches across the ELCA to pray for peace across the world. There’s all kinds of violence we don’t see.”
For Steele, it’s all about change. “We just believed that there had to be others who wanted to not just wish for change but to be that change,” she said. “People are responding to this in such a powerful way. It continues to amaze me.”