When Monica Villareal first thought about becoming a pastor, she imagined she’d serve somewhere in Michigan, but she never thought she’d find herself back in her hometown of Flint.
Flint is consistently ranked as one of the most violent cities in America, and its one ELCA congregation, Salem Lutheran Church, had seen a lot of change since its inception in 1916.
When the current building was constructed in 1952, the neighborhood was middle class and well-maintained. The city had seen prosperity when the auto industry operated many factories in the area. Then factories started to close, and the local economy took a tumble.
Pat Legg, who has been a member of Salem since 1969, saw the change firsthand. “When GM laid off a lot of people, a lot of the houses in the area were historical, sturdy homes, but people were so bad off, people just walked away.”
Now many of the houses were empty and vandalized. The church building itself needed repairs, and the plants on its lawn were all overgrown.
But in 2011, the congregation began the process of renewal and Monica answered the call. “I’m passionate about urban ministry,” she says. “Going into the call process I never thought I’d go to Flint, but it’s been an absolute blessing to serve in a community that I know.”
A surprise in the weeds
To prepare for Monica’s arrival, Pat says, the congregation had a lot of work to do — which is how they made a surprising discovery.
“The church has been here 50-some years, and the bushes had grown up, and before Pastor Monica came, the interim pastor said, ‘We’ve got to do something to make this church more appealing,’” Pat recalls.
So they enlisted a group of volunteers to spruce up the place. They painted the church’s interior, made repairs to the bathrooms and fixtures, and started removing the overgrowth on the lawn.
“We discovered this huge cross on the south side of the building,” Pat says. The cross, on the ground beneath the bushes, was nearly 8 feet tall, and nobody knew it was there.
Monica decided to make the cross a part of her installation project. When the volunteers finished clearing away the brush, the congregation built a prayer labyrinth on the building’s south side and made the cross a focal point — where it quickly became a point of interest in the neighborhood.
“It’s become a place of pride in the community,” Monica says. “A lot of folks say it brings so much hope.” People from the community now come to Salem to see the labyrinth and take pictures.
In the city for good
Salem’s congregation and the community around it include “many members who are in a variety of transitional places in their life,” Monica says. So it’s important for Salem to engage in ministries that give their community a place to come for comfort and peace.
In addition to the prayer labyrinth, the congregation also maintains two other neighborhood gardens.
The first, called the Garden of Hope, Pat maintains with the congregation’s children and they grow vegetables and flowers. The garden is open to the public, and anyone is welcome to go inside and take home as many vegetables as they need. In 2003, the garden was awarded an international award for being a “place of peace from potential violence,” Pat says.
The second garden is on the site of a home that burned down during a rash of arsons in the city. Salem bought the plot and a young man in the congregation asked to make it his Eagle Scout project. “He decided he really wanted to cast a vision for that land and make it a really nice community place to be,” says Monica.
The importance of these gardens has not been lost on the neighborhood. “When we take care of our garden, we look up and down the street and other people see our garden, and they want to take care of their lawns,” Pat says.
“When we tell the kids we have to pick up our trash and take it with us, they know why we do it,” she continues. Even the children can see the positive change the gardens bring.
Children have become an important part of Salem’s ministries. This summer, Salem will host a four-week program where kids will be able to come learn karate, African drumming, photography and scrapbooking.
“Many of our young people have seen someone in their life die as a result of homicide,” Monica says. For this reason the program will have a special emphasis on dealing with grief and understanding the feelings that come from experiencing loss.
Salem also hosts a food pantry and a clothing closet. Monica says they’ve made a long-term commitment to the city of Flint that they don’t intend to break. “We’ve had many opportunities to pack up our bags and go,” she says, “but the guiding principle of this congregation is ‘in the city for good to do good in the city.’”
Though it may not have been the assignment she expected, Monica couldn’t be more proud of the work her congregation is doing.
“We’re seeing the fruit of efforts,” she says, “and we’re seeing lives changed because of this place.”