In two snowy climates where the experience of being unhoused is especially brutal, Lutheran-led initiatives offer innovative approaches to providing shelter and creating community.

At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, 20 students received affordable housing through a partnership between Lutheran Campus Ministry and a local apartment complex. And in Roseville, Minn., Prince of Peace Lutheran is building a tiny-home village on church property, enabled by state legislation that took effect Jan. 1.

The “sacred communities” law was backed by Lutheran Advocacy–Minnesota with strong support throughout Minnesota’s six synods, said Tammy Walhof, the group’s director. The legislation allows religious properties to host communities of microunit dwellings for people who have experienced chronic homelessness and for volunteers helping them reintegrate into life with a steady roof over their head.

As Valerie Roy, the community’s inaugural member, put it: “You don’t just wake up in four walls and think you’re not homeless anymore.”

“These folks coming out of homelessness have years of deep-seated trauma,” Walhof added. “They need people who will listen, who just accept them as a child of God.”

Roy connected with Prince of Peace in July 2022, when the Roseville Police Department asked the congregation if it would let Roy live on church property in the old school bus that was her home at the time.

Prince of Peace agreed and, through Roy, met the founders of Settled., an organization that helps faith communities develop tiny-home villages it calls “sacred settlements.”

Settled. provided a tiny home for Roy at Prince of Peace, and she moved into it in December 2022. Also on site in a tiny home is a designated volunteer family: Mischa and James Beary, daughter Avia and dog Bella.

“When God is truly at work … there’s something for everybody involved.”

The Bearys moved out of their apartment to serve as a resource for Roy and to help build a sense of community in the settlement.

In early 2023, Prince of Peace was notified by the City of Roseville that the tiny house community did not comply with city codes. After working together to find a path forward, the city granted the congregation an interim-use permit, good until the new law would become effective.

In October 2023 the congregation decided to expand its tiny-home community, which occupies the church’s lot next door. The Prince of Peace Sacred Settlement at present accommodates three tiny homes, including the one occupied by the Bearys, and a “common house” inside the church that provides such items as a hot plate, a microwave oven, a refrigerator and dishes.

“As we continue this year, the congregation will also be discerning if and when we might expand our settlement with additional tiny homes,” said Peter Christ, pastor of Prince of Peace. “Our congregation has a long history of caring for those who are unattached, who are out there somewhere. We write a lot of checks, and sometimes we roll up our sleeves and go out and help with a project. But this is different, where we’re inviting people into a campus and building a community together.”

Prince of Peace was founded in 1957, and Christ said, its membership of 450 people still includes some of its charter members.

“We recognize the ways in which the presence of this community we’re building will fundamentally shape, color and add richness and vibrancy to a church that was in a place of fearfulness about our future,” he said. “As people of faith, that has been a tremendously eye-opening experience. When God is truly at work … there’s something for everybody involved. That’s the transformation we speak of in theoretical terms when God is active in the world, and here we are experiencing it ourselves.”

Healing on both sides

The Minnesota law that protects sacred communities from local ordinances was three years in the making, Walhof said, the result of a lobbying partnership among Lutheran Advocacy–Minnesota, Settled. and the state’s Joint Religious Legislative Coalition.

“There was a lot of energy around it,” Walhof said. “Resolutions in favor of it passed in two synod assemblies out of six, and there was good support out of the others. We had churches writing letters to their legislators about it.”

Now legally codified, the “sacred communities” movement is beginning to take hold elsewhere, she added.

“Now a church in Duluth, Trinity Lutheran, is moving forward to be a host congregation,” she said. “They’re hoping to partner with other churches and secular organizations. It’s so exciting to me that Prince of Peace is doing this.”

Christ believes that building a sacred community has been life-changing for Prince of Peace in ways it could never have envisioned before connecting with Roy and Settled.

“We imagined how transformative it could be for someone who has experienced chronic homelessness to be welcomed into a home and community that support them; we could easily imagine the transformation of that life,” he said. “But what we had less imagination for is how much it would transform us and our community.”

Christ believes that such transformation occurs when congregations open themselves up to the stranger and the hungry and learn to recognize the common story we all share.

“At the end of the day, we are all desperate to experience love and acceptance and acknowledgement of value,” he said. “So when you have somebody who has lived much of their life victimized by the trauma they’ve experienced and that has manifested itself in chronic homelessness, you start to recognize your story is not all that different from theirs.

“There are just a few things along the way that have kept you from experiencing chronic homelessness—we all have this capacity for being wounded by the world—and when you get to become part of someone else’s healing, you too get to experience healing.”

In part two of this story, learn about Colorado State University’s affordable housing partnership, offered through Lutheran Campus Ministry.

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

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