A 134-year-old college and a similarly venerable nearby congregation learned through an ELCA initiative that their neighbors were thirsting for them to partner in fostering togetherness.

That’s how Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) and Trinity Lutheran Church came to host a monthly meal to which everyone in Parkland, Wash., is invited.

“It’s about community building,” said Jen Rude, pastor of PLU Campus Ministry, of the meal. “If you gather around a table, beautiful things can happen.”

PLU and Trinity sit across from each other on Park Street in Parkland, an unincorporated community of about 30,000. The town lies just south of Tacoma, a port city of 220,000 that has worked hard to revitalize and shed its image as Seattle’s gritty, decaying little brother, said Jonette Blakney, pastor of Trinity. “People always think, ‘Oh, Seattle,’ and then there’s Tacoma, and Parkland is seen as a tier below Tacoma. “It’s not perceived as a safe community. There hasn’t been careful planning; there’s not a town hall or a city council. But there is this group of people who were born there and still live there and love it.”

“If you gather around a table, beautiful things can happen.”

Blakney and Rude, who has served at PLU since 2016, had been working together in an informal way since the former began her call at Trinity in 2019. Among the collaborations were a Friday chapel service and a collective Lenten observance.

Three years ago, the pastors came together in a more structured way through the ELCA’s newly formed Congregations Lead Initiative (CLI). Funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., the CLI brings together up to 50 congregations to develop innovations in ministry and to cultivate youth, newness and diversity across the ELCA.

By the time the initiative was launched, Trinity and PLU had already collaborated on a Friday chapel service and a collective Lenten observance. Rich Jaech, bishop of the Southwest Washington Synod (which shares a building with Trinity), reached out to Blakney and Rude about formalizing and strengthening the alliance between their two groups.

“The bishop contacted us and asked us [about] doing it as a partnership,” Rude said. “CLI gave us a deeper reason to partner.”

Formalized discernment

As part of the initiative, Rude, accompanied by two PLU students, and Blakney, accompanied by two Trinity members, received training from innovation and ministry thought leaders, plus personalized group instruction and support from the ELCA Coaching ministry.

Members of their cohort, which represented 41 congregations, were urged to use “design thinking,” centered in listening and empathy, to get the best possible handle on what their communities needed.

“We had an organic partnership going, which was great,” Blakney said. “But what CLI did was have us formalize the discernment and get other people involved. It really just put us on a schedule, and then some of the brainstorming [ideas came up]: ‘What can we do together?’ The partnership was the innovation for us: ‘How do we expand and not just have it be Jen and Jonette?’”

Through testing, research and a series of community interviews, the PLU-Trinity group decided that the best thing it could do for Parkland would be treating the community’s “loneliness epidemic.”

One early experiment was an intergenerational yarn group. Could people of varied ages stitch together relationships through a shared love of knitting?

The answer, Rude said, was a resounding yes.

“That’s a weekly group,” she said. “We were going to try it for one month, and we just kept doing it. It’s now been going on for two years.”

The group decided the best thing it could do would be treating the community’s “loneliness epidemic.”

Then came the monthly community meal, which started in fall 2023 with a $2,500 grant from the CLI. The meal feeds about 100 people on average and relies on more than two dozen volunteers. Yet the premise is simple: leverage the strengths of PLU (a volunteer pool of some 2,600 young, energetic students) and Trinity (a commercial kitchen and lots of expertise in food prep and service) to bring together anyone in Parkland who wants to break bread together.

“It’s really a wide variety,” Blakney said. “Very intergenerational, a real mix. A mom and two university-age daughters; a local realtor brings her daughter and son-in-law and grandkids. And we almost always have at least one PLU vice president cooking, chopping, serving along with staff and students, and volunteers from Trinity. It’s really lovely.”

Because the monthly meal depends on PLU students—including the kinesiology students who plan its nutrient-rich menu—it’s on hiatus until school starts in the fall, when it will return, bolstered by a $10,000 grant from the synod.

That money should go a long way. “The only thing that costs is when we need to buy more food,” Rude said. “Both we and Trinity have food pantries, we both have gardens, and Trinity has cultivated excellent relationships with local farmers.”

Blakney and Rude noted that the December meal was sponsored by a $1,000 donation from the company Blue Zones, which works with communities to help people live longer and healthier. Now Blue Zones has a formal project underway in Parkland as well.

“One of the ongoing struggles of PLU was, there was always an intent to reach out to the Parkland community, and we never quite got there,” Blakney said, a PLU alum and former board member. “Parkland has a deep community spirit, and we want to build something that will last beyond our call.”

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

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