By Mary Kettl
Pete Marincel and Grant Stevensen, the founders of an ELCA developing mission congregation in St. Paul, Minn., first met while Pete was working as a community organizer in a quest to help big-box store janitors get better working conditions.
At the time, Grant was president of a faith-based community organizing coalition in Minnesota. In that work, Grant says, “I met so many people who were hopeful and passionate — and almost all unattached from any church because, in this society, they don’t see church as a meaningful place for change.”
Their congregation, Spirit of Truth, which is supported in part by gifts to ELCA churchwide ministries from congregational offerings, meets on Sundays in the basement of St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church for prayer, singing and small group discussions, and while Sunday gatherings are small, 50-150 people will often show up for “actions,” like the “Justice for Retail Cleaners Campaign” that Pete began.
In May 2012, a delegation of 30 people, including members of Spirit of Truth, collected and presented over $100,000 in receipts to officials at Cub Foods in Stillwater, Minn., to demonstrate their buying power.
Because they typically work at night and because stores outsource this labor, cleaners are unseen and unheard, Grant says. “We need to raise more attention and more of a moral voice” in how they are treated.
When Cub Foods did not show interest in negotiating a code of conduct for treatment of workers, Grant was moved to join some of the retail cleaners in a hunger strike. It was, he said, a humbling experience. “I felt a sense of solidarity and shared humanity. Those of us who are more insulated from economic deprivation don’t always understand what it means to have trouble putting food on the table.”
The hunger strike, while short, did get attention and resulted in a 50 cent an hour raise for workers. “It’s not much, but it means something to these people,” Grant says. “If Jesus didn’t invite us to be with invisible people, then I don’t know where else he would want us to be.”
The economic justice focus of the group has been timely in light of the current situation in the country. “We want to be clear about what our values say about community,” Pete shares. “For example, things like taxes and banking were traditionally a civic question — the church didn’t comment much on that. We’re making it our question. This is a moral question. We need to be able to express that this is not a neutral question.”