"Rich history reminds congregation of values that keep relationships strong"
From FaithLink, September 2010
By Kate Penz, communications specialist, St Paul Area Synod
“We’re a bit of a throwback,” said the Rev. Chris Beckman, pastor at Highview Christiania in Farmington, with a smile. The church building stands where it has for 150 years, a testament to the congregation’s Norwegian American roots. (In fact, it is so well preserved that it was just added to the National Register of Historic Places.) Parishioners may joke about the hitching post out front and the congregation’s tagline, “Where the gospel meets the gravel,” but this rural congregation is serious about ministry that’s relevant to those longing for small intimacy in a cultural climate that’s increasingly busy and loud.
Organized in 1859, Highview Christiania first gathered in a log church believed to be similar in design to the old two-story Muskego Lutheran Church, which now stands on the campus of Luther Seminary. The current church was built in 1878, but it was left on skids because some members were not ready to let go of the old building. Eventually, the log church was removed and the current church was moved into its place. “The first wedding in the church was while it was on skids and the bride and groom had to climb a ladder to get into it. Sadly, we have no pictures of that,” said Beckman.
Currently, Highview Christiania gathers around 130 people together for worship each week. “We are a community that makes intentional decisions about how we live.” said Beckman. “We try to eat locally and live sustainably. As a congregation, we don’t spend what we don’t have.” Sometimes that means adding a little elbow grease to save on labor costs, and it often means volunteering to run programs. “Of the 15 or so things we do, most are run by volunteers, and almost everyone has a hand in making them happen,” said Beckman. “We try to do fewer things, but to do them well.”
Building relationships, one barn at a time
“Working together builds a stronger community. Think about the barn raisings in the past, for example,” said Beckman. “Parishioners with various levels of skill worked side-by-side. There were spiritual and relational benefits. All had a task and were members of the body.”
This year, Highview Christiania was awarded a grant from Dakota County to install a rain garden, an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional lawns that soak up 30 percent more water. When it rains, the garden fills with a few inches of water and allows the water to slowly filter into the ground instead of running off to storm drains.
The grant covered supplies and an urban planner, but required the congregation to cover labor costs. Rather than outsourcing, they saved $15,000 by doing the labor themselves. The days were long and difficult, but Beckman said that working together on the rain garden started conversations, deepened relationships, and created a sense of pride in what they were building.
The congregation is used to hard work and knows its benefits. When the sanctuary required a remodel, it was the members that did most of the work. A men’s group meets weekly over coffee before working on projects around the church, and confirmation students often come by during the summer to help out. Skilled laborers guide enthusiastic learners, help them discover new gifts, and hear from others with different life experiences. “It’s about creating a place to be church together,” said Beckman.
Moving out into the world
“The last few years we have focused on our own community: celebrating our 150th anniversary, restoring the building, and strengthening relationships,” said Beckman “Now we are trying to tap into a vein of mission work outside our walls. We want to use our gift of relationship to do projects with others locally and globally.”
Highview Christiania has established a partnership with ILA Santa Cruz de la Esperanza in Cimiento, Guatemala, a congregation of the Augustinian Lutheran Church in Guatemala (ILAG). Hillary Mealman, a member of Highview Christiania, spent a yearlong internship in Guatemala. Mealman returned to share her experience with the congregation, and shortly after, Highview Christiania hosted Padre Horacio Castillo, president of ILAG, and his family while they stayed in Minnesota in 2007. The congregation voted to establish a companion relationship, and two delegations have since traveled to Guatemala. Beckman and Highview Christiania member Gloria Anderson serve on the ILAG companion synod task force.
Connecting with neighbors
The congregation is also engaging the surrounding community in new ways. Now that the rain garden is in place (and has been tested by this summer’s above-average rainfall! Two inches fell the night after it was installed.), Highview Christiania has invited groups to use it as an educational tool.
Highview Christiania will continue to partner with Southeast Asian Ministry (SeAM), a relationship they have maintained for many years. Each year the congregation hosts a fundraiser concert featuring local talent acts to support SeAM. A group of Karen refugees will visit on Sunday, September 12 to participate in Highview Christiania’s fall kickoff worship service and picnic.
Members of Highview Christiania will bring horses that day for the Karen refugees to ride, a new experience for many in the group. “The Karen elders are very excited to go on a fieldtrip and learn a bit about American culture,” said Jennifer Schneider, executive director of SeAM. “They will share a part of their culture by singing Karen hymns at worship.”
Hope for the future
“One of my gifts is to identify other people’s gifts and find ways to use them,” said Beckman. “Most of us want to contribute but don’t always know how or what to do. Our church communities must be places where people can discover new gifts and where those talents are encouraged.”
Beckman believes in the value of diversity and the richness of community it can create. “My hope is that we continue to be diverse and volunteerist,” said Beckman. “I worry that the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly vote on ministry policies will begin to decrease diversity in the church and cause us to become more segregated. We are all a part of the body, created to be in community and to share those gifts.”