One of the many claims to fame of the Logan Park neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis is a city block that contains four churches—allegedly the only block in the world to possess such a concentration of religious institutions. The four churches cumulatively have over four-hundred years of history in Logan Park. Unsurprisingly, all four have histories rooted in Scandinavian immigrants. The two north churches were competing Norwegian Lutheran churches, while the southern two were Swedish—one Baptist, one Lutheran.
Don Heide has been attending Elim Baptist Church for nearly fifty years, and is the authoritative reference on all things Elim. His time at Elim began in the mid 1960s when he was attending North Central University in Minneapolis. One Sunday, his friends yelled at him to join them at a church in Northeast Minneapolis.
His friends had gotten involved in Elim because of a pastor named Emmett Johnson. Emmett grew up in northern Minnesota, studied Philosophy and English in college, and came to Elim in the early 1950s. Emmett’s vision for how the church should operate diverged fairly significantly from traditional views at the time. He believed that the best way to reach the community was to be seen as a cultural asset which provided activities like basketball or volleyball. In the late 1950s, they took the unusual step of adding a gymnasium to the second floor. This somewhat radical ideology filled an unmet desire in the community; attendance swelled under Emmett’s guidance, routinely reaching 500 during weekend services.
Don was among the many who for whom Emmett’s leadership scratched an itch. Don had grown up in a religious environment he defined as “separatistic,” one which preached isolating yourself from the world around you. By the time he went to college, he had pitched the idea of religion and Christianity.
Coming to Elim had him rethinking that. Don remembered leaving Elim that day and telling his fiancé, Jan, “Man, I found a church that I really enjoy!” Emmett’s community-focused vision set a standard for what it means to be involved in church. His wife started teaching at the preschool when their kids were old enough to attend and did administrative work for the church for 20-odd years. Don taught teens in Sunday School, and has served on various church boards since then, including chair of the building committee.
Because he was so involved in the design of Elim’s 1988 addition, he claimed no one probably knows the building like he does. Over the numerous times Don and I met at the church, he was always performing routine maintenance or attending to the garden in front. “There’s always something that needs to be done,” he quipped.
Don defined his knowledge in pragmatic terms—need a broom or a spare chair? Need to trace an electrical circuit? Don’s probably your man. But he’s also used his position, involvement, and interest in the church to delve into its deep history.
Elim began in 1888, when a group of Swedish immigrants in Northeast had grown tired of making the trek across the river to attend the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis. Those 55 industrious charter members set to work establishing their new congregation. They purchased their first building for $4200—quite a sum in the late 19th century. They kept expanding and laid the cornerstone for the new building, which still stands today at the corner of 13th and Madison, in the winter of 1904. The building contained nine 14-feet-tall stained-glass windows, which would’ve been seen as opulent then, but the early immigrants insisted on making it a place of beauty.
The church served as an anchor for Swedish immigrants throughout the early 20th century. Recent arrivals to Minneapolis from Sweden knew they had somewhere to go, and though the actual park in Logan Park existed, Elim became a de facto hub of activity. Shortly after the completion of the second church, Bethel College and Seminary began here before moving to St. Paul.
As the century wore on, Elim assimilated into the backdrop of American culture, eventually exchanging Swedish for English language services. The church retained its interest in promoting activities for youth, a value ingrained in the Swedish immigrants that’s been passed on to subsequent generations. Don’s daughter flew to Haiti and spent a week working with the poor and homeless there, and Elim’s Sunday School remains a strength and point of pride.
I asked Don to describe the church these days to someone who had never heard of Elim, and he immediately replied, “egalitarian.” After Emmett Johnson left in ‘69, the new pastor, Bill Hedeen continued Johnson’s efforts of expanding what the church could be. He gave a series of sermons about organizing the ministry around action items like worship and fellowship, rather than gender—sermons which Don said he’ll never forget. By 1986 they had rewritten their constitution to avoid all gendered words. They hired a female senior leader and associate pastor, and started placing women in staff positions beyond children’s work.
It was clear Don had come a long way since his “separatistic” religious upbringing. He said the friendships have been what’s rooted him here. But it’s also the building whose changes he’s overseen, the history he’s explored, and the memories he’s made of past pastors, volleyball games and Sunday School. These intangibles fuel his attachment, too.