Over the past six years, as I have come to know and love the Spirit River community, I’ve started using the term “special sauce” to describe the unique culture and blessing that is Spirit River. In 2018, when Spirit River Community Church and Spirit River Foundation received the Jeanne Audrey Powers Award for Healing a Broken World, I shared these words as I presented their award at annual conference: Most churches believe that they are warm, friendly, and inviting, and that is certainly true. There is one community here in the Minnesota Annual Conference where everyone, and I mean, everyone, is welcomed just for who they are. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you’ve experienced or done in your life. You will experience radical hospitality at Spirit River.” Rev. Guy Sederski, pastor of Spirit River Community Church often says, “We are a place where broken hearts become open hearts.”
Since 2007, Spirit River has provided this community of acceptance and radical hospitality for those who are facing daily and complex struggles in life. The congregational arm of Spirit River provides a worshipping community for spiritual growth and nurture. The Spirit River Foundation is dedicated to providing help for physical and emotional needs such as financial insecurity, food scarcity, divorce care for parents/children/adolescents, life skills, memory care, recovery from adverse childhood experiences, and other types of mental health issues.
The Spirit River Foundation is modeled after United Methodist nonprofit community development corporation The Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio. Through the leadership of Gail Sederski, program director for the Spirit River Foundation, its vision of “catalyzing collaborations with key strategic partners to improve the quality of life in the region through individual and community services” is being lived out in powerful ways. Its core principle: “As we serve in partnership with our community, we are tangibly demonstrating God’s love in practical and meaningful ways. We send the message that God cares deeply about who we are and is intimately involved with people’s daily struggles and victories.”
During the pandemic, I’ve seen a huge increase in partnerships and support among our congregations and clergy. It is so inspiring to see folks move out of their silos and begin to dream about a greater impact that can come through collaboration.
For more than a year, a large number of Coon Rapids UMC members have volunteered at Matthew 25—Spirit River’s free food giveaway, which has been financially supported through a partnership with the Common Ground UMC Thrift Store in Cambridge. One member of Coon Rapids reflected, “My husband and I needed to rely on food stamps only once, but that was truly a humbling experience. Everyone in the line at the grocery store knew you were using food stamps and you felt shame…It’s not quite the same now. But we had two little ones to feed, so we used them. I know exactly how these people feel. It brings me back. Food stamps carried such a stigma. If I can hand out food at Matthew 25 with a smile and a little conversation, hopefully those receiving the food will leave feeling a little more hopeful. I can only pray.”
Sue Lehrer, another member of Coon Rapids UMC, articulated the impact on the Coon Rapids church: “The Matthew 25 program gave Coon Rapids UMC members, of all ages and abilities, an avenue to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the community.”
An important lesson we have all learned during this pandemic is that the church is not a building. The body of Christ is alive, and the Spirit moves through us as Christ’s disciples.
The Spirit River building in Isanti, which served as a banquet center and was once a restaurant, used to be perfect for congregation and community engagement. It had a commercial kitchen that allowed life skills classes to be taught there and provided a space for local events. But the building became overwhelming to for Spirit River’s members and clergy to manage. So, more than a year ago, Spirit River came to the realization that its building was impeding its mission and keeping it from being able to do all that God had called the congregation to accomplish. With the proper approvals, Spirit River took a big risk and put the building up for sale. Last month, the congregation finalized the sale of its property to the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, and early on the morning of July 6, Tibetan monks gathered to bless the property for their use and members of Spirit River joined them in this celebration.
In the midst of all of this, another significant partnership has formed! Spirit River and the faithful folks of West Bethel UMC in Cedar have been worshipping online together since the beginning of the pandemic. Since they already share a pastor, West Bethel members invited Spirit River members to move in with them and share their space.
Amber Brown from West Bethel said, “Both churches have enjoyed the joint worship services that we have done together on special occasions, as well as several other activities, so this was a good and natural fit for Spirit River Community Church and West Bethel UMC.” Another member of West Bethel, Judy Sandstrom, commented that “our church building will be better utilized, and I look forward to getting to know and working with the Spirit River congregation.”
Ministry in this time is requiring all of us to step outside our comfort zones and to seek allies and partners in order to address the pressing issues of our time. I am grateful to the people of Spirit River, Coon Rapids UMC, Common Ground UMC, and West Bethel UMC for leading by example. May their work together be richly blessed!
Rev. Susan Nienaber is superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference's Big Waters District.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church