by Elizabeth Pease
Photos: Robert Cunningham, Photoresource; Chris Raway; JT Mcmanmon
The West Side of St. Paul is a neighborhood of contrasts. It’s the sort of place where you’ll find grand Victorian-era homes with their arched brick balconies close to tired-looking slum apartment buildings with fleece blankets covering the windows. On summer Saturdays a farmer’s market pops up in the parking lot of a former Dairy Queen, now called the Icy Cup, which sells tacos in addition to sweet treats. The whole neighborhood slopes down a hill from south to north, ending abruptly in a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, with downtown St. Paul in all its glory visible on the opposite bank.
Knocking on doors at random, you’re just as likely to meet a Mexican grandmother and her teenage granddaughter, a family of Muslim immigrants from Africa, a white woman smoking in Tweety-bird slippers, or a college-educated couple in their first home. Ask locals where they live, and they won’t say “St. Paul.” Welcome to the West Side, a place where community members have been deliberately clustering and reaching out since the fall of 2014.
Today, the initial West Side outreach team consists of Mary Bredenberg, Matt and Mary Brickweg, Jim and Beth Bulger, Tony Kuplic, JT McManmon, Chris and Geriann Raway and Pat Murphy, who heads the outreach. (A second outreach team is in its early stages—see below.) The first team meets weekly for a meal, where they plan and share the fruit of their activities. They join together for prayer early on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the Brickwegs’ house, where Madeleine, 4, and Vera, 2, act as joyous ringleaders, dancing about and clapping along to the guitar. They see one another often. The Brickwegs and Raways live next door to each other, the Bulgers live two houses down, and JT McManmon lives one street over.
“The common life that the team members are living together is thick,” Pat says. “There is a lot of time that people are spending together. The team members are becoming fast friends and their life together may be the biggest thing happening in our West Side work right now.” Long-term, he says they hope that the life they’re building will attract neighbors. In small ways, that attraction is already setting in.
In the summer of 2017, many community members came together to put on a day camp in a local park for neighborhood children. Through the camp, they met several local families, most of them originally from Mexico, and some new relationships began to blossom. At a cookout on the evening of the last day of camp, Mary Brickweg met an expectant mother and offered to make a meal for her family when the baby came. A few weeks later, Mary was making plans for the meal and called the mother to work out the logistics. “I asked her how many people to cook for, and she rattled off her family, and then she said, ‘Oh, and your family, of course, too.’” When the day came, Mary helped set the table and a grandfather gave Matt a tour of improvements he’d made to the house. “It felt like we were just waltzing into the home of a family we’d known forever,” Mary says.
Another new friendship began when Maricruz Hernandez brought her two grade-school-age boys to the camp and realized she’d seen Beth at church. Beth offered to babysit, and stunned Maricruz when she came to pick the boys up by declining an offer of payment. Maricruz remembers, “She said, ‘Think of it as if a grandma was babysitting. That felt really nice, because my mom is not here. Even my aunts charge me for babysitting.”
At the time, Maricruz and her husband Francisco had been living in an apartment building whose front steps attracted a wandering group of teenagers smoking and drinking. One day last fall Maricruz called Beth to ask if the West Side team could come pray with one of her sons who was sick. Beth, Jim and Chris arrived first, and had to walk through a crowd of about 15 on the porch. “Tensions among the youth were escalating,” Beth recalls. As the three of them stood in a small foyer waiting for JT to arrive, Chris urged them to pray, and they began to pray deliverance prayers in full view of the crowd on the porch. “Pretty soon after that, we noticed that this crowd of kids was gone,” Chris said. After that, the group stayed away, according to Maricruz.
A few weeks later, Maricruz and Francisco learned that their rent was going up, so they started to think about moving. The rental house next to Matt and Mary was vacant, left in poor condition by former residents. Maricruz was convinced they wouldn’t be able to afford to rent a house, but decided to look anyway. The owner was reluctant to rent the house again because it was in such bad shape, but when they toured the house they struck a bargain that involved Francisco working to improve the house in exchange for a reduction in rent. Over the last few weeks of December, the Raways and Bulgers and their adult children visiting over the holidays put in many hours helping Francisco and Maricruz get the house ready. They cleaned the house from top to bottom, refinished floors and painted. “I have never felt God’s love that much,” Maricruz says.
The friendship between Francisco and Maricruz’s family and the team members continues to grow, and now includes a regular outreach men’s group meeting and women’s group meetings, not to mention Spanish practice. Since fall the Raways and Beth have been taking classes, believing that God may want them to get to know many more Spanish speakers in the area.
John Ostby dates his decision to move to the West Side to a branch men’s retreat in the spring of 2016. Nick Holovaty (Mission, Evansville) led the retreat, and at one point he asked the men to take five minutes in silent prayer and ask the Lord for a word for someone in their men’s group. After the prayer, Bruce Olson came up and tapped John on the shoulder. He reminded John of a story from the Gospels in which Jesus tells his disciples to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. As John tells it, Bruce said, “I believe that’s a word for you and Sandy, and I believe it’s also a word for Charlene and me.” John answered, “I believe you’re right and I believe that means the West Side. We’re gonna go fish for God on the West Side.”
Last summer, after some months of prayer and discernment, and after selling their suburban homes, the Ostbys and Olsons moved to rental apartments on the West Side, but they hoped to find houses to buy. One day Charlene took a walk and stopped to pray in front of a house she liked. A man stopped his car and asked what she was doing. Charlene explained that she walked the neighborhood each day to pray for a house. The man paused a moment, then said, “You know what, God’s gonna get you a house, and it’s gonna be better than you can imagine.” Then he got back in his car and left.
A few months later, they came across a large, four-bedroom house across the street and around the corner from 490, the former convent on the grounds of St. Matthew’s Parish where Servant Branch college students and community members have been renting apartments since 2016. The house has two bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms on the first floor, with a full bath on each floor, and it dawned on them that the two couples could live there together. They plan to move in this May. Together the Olsons and Ostbys are the backbone of a second outreach team, which they hope will grow. Their team has a different geographical focus, centered on the area around 490, about five blocks away from the cluster where the Bulgers, Raways and Brickwegs live.
Another prong of the outreach is growing at Cerenity Senior Care, a home for seniors which is also close to the 490 apartments. After talking with the chaplain about what might be helpful and trying a few ideas, Beth, Geriann and Meg Ferber ended up starting a small group called Women in Faith that resembles a women’s group. Geriann explains, “We generally share a Scripture passage, and are trying to elicit friendship among them, particularly in sharing their struggles and praying for one another.” Some of the residents who attend the group are in their 90s or over 100, and others are younger, but live at Cerenity for help with various health needs. Beth recalls a birthday celebration in the small group: “One of the women always knows who’s been the hospital, who needs to be cheered up, or who has a relative in trouble. We found out that it was going to be her birthday, so we honored her, and we brought her favorite food. We knew she liked music, so we brought a guitar that day. She normally is giving a lot of love and sometimes experiences loneliness herself. She was very touched.”
Pat says that they hope to start a men’s group at Cerenity in the near future. “There are a lot of people in that nursing home and we might end up having a big impact on them at the last stages of their lives.”
As they go about their days, all the community members living on the West Side seek to interact with neighbors, paying attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and responding in a harmonious way. That might mean walking for a few blocks with an older woman who gets off the bus with three or four bags and needs a little help carrying them. It might mean buying a meal for a homeless man and using the time to talk about the Lord, or inviting a married couple over for an impromptu meal and praying with them afterward. As Pat puts it, it means always being open to the Lord, always asking, “What do we see God doing? What’s right in front of us, and how can we respond to the things we run into?”