By Mary Kettl
They could have disbanded. Indeed, closing the doors permanently was an option members of Redeemer Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Portland, Ore., had discussed.
The 90-year-old congregation had seen the surrounding neighborhood change, growing poorer for years before beginning a curve toward gentrification. When worship attendance shrank to around 40 people, they realized they were not sustainable long-term.
But instead of giving up, Redeemer turned to the strategies of community organizing for hope.
“People started asking, ‘What could we do to change our community?’” says Melissa Reed, Redeemer’s pastor. Using organizing tools such as one-to-one conversations and small group meetings with members and residents in the surrounding neighborhood, Redeemer started to ask, “What would be a relevant spiritual community for you?” In these discussions, Reed and staff organizer Wendy Hall Curtis found that people wanted a spiritual community that promoted justice.
What emerged was Leaven Project, an initiative that is being supported by the generous donations ELCA members have made to the ELCA Oregon Synod and to ELCA churchwide ministries.
Leaven Project describes itself as a collection of “church-folk and not-so-churchy folk,” who are interested in organizing efforts that pursue justice. For instance, since 2009, Leaven Project has orchestrated six “money moves” in which several households withdrew their money from large, corporate banks and deposited it in a local credit union, an effort to send a message to the banking industry and to make sure the money would be used locally.
The amount — over half a million dollars — was not insignificant, and has attracted the interest of groups in other communities, Melissa says. Leaven Project is also working with the credit union to launch a micro-lending pool. “We already have recipients in mind and are just getting the structure in place,” she says.
In addition, Leaven Project is concerned with issues involving the environment. Partnering with other environmentally conscious organizations, members are examining the larger forces — land, labor, capital and production — as well as the peace, justice and economic issues that affect the environment.
During the summer, gardening teams tend raised beds of vegetables on the lawn of the church. The monthly harvest from the Koinonia Garden is shared at a community supper, open to the neighborhood as well as the congregation.
“We walk the road as we make it — or something like that,” says Wendy of Redeemer’s transition.
“We still have to prove ourselves,” Melissa shares. “We have to develop our own capacities and make our own way.”