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Peace Lutheran staved off death by taking ‘love thy neighbor’ to a radical extreme

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

Peace Lutheran Church was slouching toward extinction. Only 20 members remained. It wasn’t hard to understand why.

You’d have to be lost to find the building, hidden next to a giant noise barrier on a backstreet in Lauderdale, the micro-suburb where East Hennepin and Larpenteur Avenues converge. Yet Peace’s problems were greater than geography.

There was a past affiliation with the conservative Missouri Synod brand of Lutheranism, whose rigidity drove people away, rather than invited them in. Peace had quietly defied doctrine by elevating women to prominent roles and welcoming anyone to its door. But this wasn’t something you could advertise to bring in new members. It all blew up when an out-of-towner attended service, witnessed the heresy, and ratted them out.

Then came the graying of Christendom. If older parishioners knew there were still churches that walked it like they talked it, their children and grandchildren did not. They’d grown up under a bombardment of pedophile priests, prosperity gospelers who reimagined Jesus as a venture capitalist, evangelicals who found so many loopholes in “love thy neighbor” there were few left to love at all.

Religion’s good name was soiled for generations, pushing small churches to the brink.

By the time Rev. Dave Greenlund arrived, just 18 months’ worth of savings remained to stave off closure. “It looked like he was either going to help it die or revive it,” says his wife, Karen Carlsen. “The first service he basically said to them they’re dead. ‘Now what are you going to do?’”

Peace Lutheran Church

Peace Lutheran Church Colin Michael Simmons

Parishioners decided if they were to die, they would die well. So they took loving thy neighbor to a practical extreme. Peace leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.

There would be no litmus tests, no income requirements, no concern if you were Lutheran or atheist. The idea was to deliver neighbors from the duress of big-ticket bills, the kind that leave families punished by debt, or unable to pay at all.

They would get your furnace running, make your kitchen handicap accessible, ensure your car started in time for work. “Your quality of life can be improved if the toilet works,” says Carlsen, a grief counselor by day.

Greenlund knew Peace would get few takers. Lauderdale is a mix of working people and those who’ve seen better days, with only the first hints of gentrifiers seeking cheaper housing just 10 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. These were not people who publicly confessed their troubles.

There was also the natural suspicion of anything religious, the assumption that “free” would come with a downpour of proselytizing.

At the time, Peace was a neighborhood non-entity with little good will. “It was always closed, dark,” Greenlund says of his initial impression. “I didn’t even think it was open anymore.”

Only two women responded. One needed concrete repaired and the footings fixed in a rotting garage. Another hoped her house could be painted.

Peace stayed at it, cleaning homes for shut-ins, building chair lifts for the disabled, rewiring old houses for widows whose husbands had kept the lights on with the duct tape method. There would be no preaching, no expectation that recipients come to church. They would simply help.

Word spread. If an elderly widow’s furnace broke on Christmas Eve, Lauderdale came to know that the first move was to call Pastor Dave.

The idea was infectious. Non-members joined the cause by the dozens. Donations from the grateful kept the church afloat. In an age of foreboding, Peace was proving that tenderness still rose in small, unexpected places.

 

“Does that happen in other places?”

Dan Mackerman was bingeing on bad luck. To make way for condos, he and fellow artists were booted from their University Avenue studios. His wife suffered a health crisis. The IRS came calling.

It’s at times like these when Pastor Dave tends to appear. A Peace delegation floated the notion of building a new studio behind Mackerman’s small Lauderdale home.

The project took three years, using discounted materials and proceeding as money permitted. Labor came courtesy of “everyone in the whole congregation,” says Mackerman, “plus people in the neighborhood.” The result was not just one man’s studio, but a 1,400-square-foot neighborhood home for art classes and shows.

“It doesn’t matter if the person is poor or whatever. You can be well-off and it still doesn’t matter,” says Dan Mackerman.

“It doesn’t matter if the person is poor or whatever. You can be well-off and it still doesn’t matter,” says Dan Mackerman.

“It’s overwhelming,” Mackerman says. “At the end of the day, all anybody’s hoping for is to get help when you’re in trouble. Everything today is so monetized. You’re supposed to pay for all that stuff. What we lacked in money, we made up for it in just being part of a community. And that’s very powerful.”

Neighbor Brian Malzer understands that power. He’s not religious. “I’ve never managed to muster much faith of my own.”

One day a cement truck rolled up to his home. He was building an addition, and he was the only one there to pour the foundation. “I looked up and saw a half-dozen people from Peace. They wanted to know if I needed help. Does that happen in other places?”

Malzer is among the givers. He’s helped tear down a garage, insulate an attic, build a retaining wall. “Zero have been for members of the church,” he says. “The majority of the projects are not for their members.”

This would include Waliany Fatima, a Pakistani immigrant who works as a University of Minnesota parking lot cashier. With a wife and son, he couldn’t afford to paint his house. “I’m the only bread earner,” he says, “so it’s very expensive to get anything done.”

Peace arrived to do it for him, returning later to repair concrete and fix his downspouts. “They’re the true Americans,” says Fatima. “They’re what make this country great.”

The church’s beneficence peaks every year with Christmas in August, when Peace leaflets the town. Armies of up to 60 volunteers descend on dozens of homes, tackling everything from yard work to remodeling bathrooms for the disabled.

Rev. Dave Greenlund

Rev. Dave Greenlund

“There’s no guidelines,” says Mackerman. “It doesn’t matter if the person is poor or whatever. You can be well-off and it still doesn’t matter. It has very little to do with religion or Christianity, and everything to do with community.”

 

Hard-luck boy turned Renaissance man

Dave Greenlund is intimate with the broken life. He grew up in an impoverished family in which nothing seemed to work. His mother suffered from depression. His older brother had special needs. The man he was told was his father was a professional thief, shot to death by police during a robbery.

By age 10, he was learning the art of repair from his grandpa, a “full-blown drunk” and handyman in their Chicago apartment building. When Grandpa was too hammered to work, Greenlund began doing it himself, discovering “a natural gift.”

He left home at 14, finding work at a building owned by former Peace Corps members hoping to prove affordable housing could still be profitable. Greenlund painted apartments by day, squatting in them by night, saving money to send himself to college. “That’s how I spent the last couple years of high school.”

He would end up with a satchel of degrees in everything from art to archaeology to divinity, including two master’s. Ask others to describe him, and the words “Renaissance man” inevitably shoot forth.

“I got interested in religion because the biblical stories were about families like mine,” he says. “There were single moms and dads who were in prison. There’s not a functional family in the whole book.”

Peace was the ideal fit, in full rebellion against its conservative past. Congregants wanted someone who would perform gay weddings, baptize Hindu kids and atheists. “They wanted all this stuff,” says Greenlund. “They didn’t want to get someone who wasn’t radically open, who would hold anyone back.”

They would place their faith in a simple prophesy: “If the neighborhood needs us, we’ll stay open.”

Greenlund’s childhood misery had remade itself as a gift of sorts, offering acute understanding of struggle in its most elementary form. “He grew up poor and their toilets never worked,” says wife Karen. “He lived what it was like to have no electricity.”

Though many programs aid the needy, most come with an onslaught of conditions. Peace took just one phone call. No questions asked.

“It’s kind of become this thing: ‘Call Pastor Dave, and he can do something,’” says brother-in-law Rolf Carlsen, a retired Andover school principal. “He’s got cars coming and going all the time to keep people in wheels.”

Greenlund’s forte is reaching those unable to reach back: The mentally ill. The traumatized. The hoarders and the shut-ins. Those whose problems seem so vast most don’t know how or where to start.

“There are a lot of people with mental health needs,” says Carlsen. “Dave has an ability to draw out people. They’re just really socially awkward, and the only reason they come out of their house is because of Pastor Dave. He has a gift for making people like that feel like they can talk to him.”

Greenlund doesn’t much care who’s a member and who is not. He considers the 2,500 souls of Lauderdale his parish, administering funerals for anyone who asks.

Karen Carlsen cites the woman in her 60s who hears voices and suffers “pretty severe mental problems. She didn’t talk to anyone.” When her dad died, Greenlund officiated his funeral.

“Now she goes out and helps on every one of these projects. His whole theology is based on how Jesus went toward those people we were afraid of.”

Another woman was a functioning heroin addict. She saved money to fix the bathroom and kitchen of her sagging Lauderdale home, paying a contractor up front. The man disappeared, leaving her home torn up in mid-job. Peace came to the rescue.

“I’m just the waitstaff,” says Greenlund. “If you show up, you’re welcome. I’m not gonna card anyone.”

Or as Malzer puts it: “He helps people, and helps people help other people.”

 

Death waits another day

Peace’s membership has quadrupled since Greenlund arrived, but it remains a poor church. The signs are evident throughout a 1950s structure saddled next to a sound barrier guarding against the din from Highway 280.

At one point parishioners discovered the roof was on the verge of collapse. The original builders neglected code. Only an uninsulated ceiling, which kept snow melted, prevented it from plunging down on everything in its path.

The church couldn’t cover the $100,000 bill to make it safe. So they figured a way to raise tons of steel reinforcements on their own. At Peace, default mode says every obstacle is surmountable, at least till proven otherwise.

The same goes for the elevator. Peace needed a way for the disabled to join festivities in the basement. Neighbors Keith and Grace Dyrud lent a backhoe so congregants could build it themselves.

Then there’s the air conditioning. Quality Air Mechanical offered to refurbish units discarded by a school. It showed up with new ones instead, the owner wanting to “pay it forward,” says Greenlund.

Peace also created a lending library of used tools, those unaffordable items like a jackhammer and an infrared camera that detects heat leaks. A plumbing snake allows congregants to clear neighbors’ sewer lines, saving them $700 a pop.

On a weekday morning, Barb Nelson spends her retirement on her hands and knees, tiling the church floor. She worked for Lutheran Social Services as a guardian for disabled adults. Five years ago, she began traveling from Roseville to Peace.

There’s a curative value in helping others by sweat of brow. The church’s notion of pure effort has a way of sanding off one’s imperfections.

“It’s based on being good neighbors in the community, to people of all walks of life and economics,” Nelson says of her attraction to Peace. “The emphasis isn’t about being perfect and not sinful, but trying to be good. I know if I needed anything, there are people I can call. Today there are people helping me move my mother into a nursing home. We all agree that the most important thing is to love our neighbors. ”

While the congregation itself remains small, parishioners say hundreds of others consider the church theirs. They may never come to service. They may think God an archaic superstition. Yet they nonetheless feel the pull of kindness.

“It’s easy to lose perspective and feel isolated and of little consequence,” says Greenlund. While these may not be times of hopefulness, Peace offers a chance at someday getting there. “People want to be a part of that.”