Dream come true – Minnehaha UMC kept faith with affordable housing project

If anyone wants to know how long a major mission project can take, and how much satisfaction can be derived at the end, Wanda Driver is a good one to ask.

She helped kick off Minnehaha United Methodist Church’s effort to do something big in affordable housing. She stood by beaming when the Riverview Apartments, providing 42 units for low-income seniors, finally had their dedication ceremony last month in south Minneapolis.

“I’m 81 now,” Ms. Driver said by phone. “I was 69 when we started.”

A resident showed off his apartment to visitors during the March 5 grand opening of Riverview. PHOTO COURTESY BEACON INTERFAITH HOUSING COLLABORATIVE

The project is a testimony to the power of collaboration by Christian groups and others, but those close to it say Minnehaha UMC deserves to take some singular satisfaction.

“Everybody in that church knows this housing wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Minnehaha,” said Lee Blons, executive director of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, a partner in the effort.

Minnehaha UMC is a 500-member congregation in the Nokomis East neighborhood of south Minneapolis. The church has a history of social justice concern, including operating two food ministries, said its pastor, the Rev. Cooper Wiggen.

Back in the 1990s, some members of the United Methodist Women unit at Minnehaha UMC were tutoring in a nearby school with lots of children from low-income families. Ms. Driver, president of the UMW chapter, learned from the tutors that some kids wouldn’t be in place long enough to get much help, because they were homeless and moved often.

“This just got to me,” Ms. Driver said. “The schooling for my children had been a high priority.”

She and some others in the church began to investigate what might be done to create affordable housing in their area. They attended meetings of the Metropolitan Interfaith Council for Affordable Housing, and that led eventually to a connection with the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation.

The Riverview Apartments are close to a light-rail line, a VA medical facility and Minnehaha Falls. PHOTO COURTESY BEACON INTERFAITH HOUSING COLLABORATIVE

That group, now known as Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, works with about 50 churches in the Minneapolis area. It fights homelessness through a temporary shelter program and by helping to make affordable housing projects happen.

“We’ve been around 12 years, and we’ve built or preserved almost 500 apartments,” said Ms. Blons.

Through Beacon, Minnehaha would be connected with Lake Nokomis Lutheran Church, its main church partner for the Riverview project. The effort began to take on definition around 2002.

“Our researchers found a neglected strip of land owned by the state,” Mr. Wiggen said. “The state had no interest in it. We worked on a project of persuading the city of Minneapolis to purchase that strip of land and use it for [affordable housing] development.”

Minneapolis did buy the land, but other development projects emerged to compete with the churches’ plan for affordable housing, and a neighborhood association made plain its opposition to the latter.

“It’s fair to say there was some significant resistance,” Mr. Wiggen said. “What it amounts to is, ‘Don’t bring these poor people into my backyard.’”

Ms. Blons said the church members helped turn the tide through a postcard campaign to City Hall.

“It was such a key moment,” she said. “It allowed the council person to say to those who did not want it to happen, ‘I’ve got hundreds of people who do want it to happen.”

Mr. Wiggen and Ms. Driver agree that the decision to focus on affordable housing for seniors—as opposed to affordable housing generally—helped sell the proposal.

While seniors housing may seem far removed from Ms. Driver’s original urge to help homeless kids, she and Mr. Wiggen note that when a senior moves from a small, inexpensive house to a low-cost apartment such as those at Riverview, that opens up housing for a family of modest means.

Paul McDonald, a Riverview Apartments resident, brought along a walking stick he’d made to the March 5 grand opening. PHOTO COURTESY BEACON INTERFAITH HOUSING COLLABORATIVE

The Riverview project still required a major grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There hadn’t been a HUD grant of this kind in Minneapolis since 2002.

The Riverview proposal prevailed, though, winning a $6 million grant that, combined with $2 million from city, state and non-public sources (the two churches contributed about $50,000 each, Mr. Wiggen said) would finance the project.

The “groundblessing” for Riverview occurred on Sept. 25, 2011, attended by representatives from the churches, Beacon and yet another partner, CommonBond Communities, which operates affordable housing units.

By last November, Riverview Apartments—within walking distance of a light-rail line, a VA medical facility and Minnehaha Falls—was taking in its first residents. The grand opening for the apartments—which are now full—occurred March 5.

Mr. Wiggen challenged Ms. Driver and others at Minnehaha to come up with memorable welcoming gifts for the residents: specifically, prayer shawls. They had some made, and knew they could make more; but not enough for all those moving into the apartments.

Ms. Driver contacted the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee, a women’s prison, and asked the restorative justice staff member if some of the inmates might be enlisted to help.

“He said, ‘All you have to do is buy me the yarn,’” she recalled.

The women prisoners got to work and helped meet the demand, producing, according to Ms. Driver, some highly original and beautiful prayer shawls. They let Ms. Driver know during her visits there how much the work had meant to them.

“I was so pleased—overwhelmed, really—that they would take this on so earnestly,” she said.

Mr. Wiggen said the prayer shawls, when displayed in the church before going to the residents, became a visible symbol of Minnehaha UMC’s “faith and prayer and concern” for the Riverview project.

He emphasizes that the church is not declaring its affordable housing mission accomplished. He remains on the Beacon board, and the church plans to stay involved at Riverview, supporting residents as needs

Minnehaha UMC, with the help of inmates of a nearby women’s prison, provided prayer shawls as welcoming gifts to residents of Riverview Apartments. PHOTO COURTESY MINNEHAHA UMC

emerge. Church members have lately been on a letter-writing campaign to make curbing youth homelessness a priority of state government.

Mr. Wiggen said that with the Riverview project, Minnehaha UMC drew on both the Communities of Shalom approach to serving the local community, and the African “ubuntu” concept of building relationships through shared community service.

For small to mid-size churches, he said, it’s helpful in mission efforts to find a good focus and relentlessly communicate with and involve the membership.

“The more a congregation can cultivate a shared sense of calling and responsibility, the more vibrantly that affects the whole church and all of its programs,” Mr. Wiggen said.

It helped, in Minnehaha’s case, to have an aptly named layperson, Ms. Driver, who got involved in the beginning and kept at it all the way to the prayer shawl-draped grand opening.

“They wouldn’t quit,” Ms. Blons said of Minnehaha UMC. “Wanda Driver wouldn’t let them quit.”


Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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