First Covenant is deeply rooted in Elliot Park, Minneapolis. As the landscape of the neighborhood changed over time, the church has evolved to meet the needs of the community. Today, “First Cov” strives to meet long-term needs for a thriving neighborhood, using their space to shelter those in need and listening to the voices of the community to create a catalyst for change.
First Covenant has been a fixture in the community since the late nineteenth century. The church was founded in 1874 by Swedish immigrants as
the “Swedish Tabernacle.” When the building was constructed in 1887, the area was a landscape of residential houses and farmland on the outskirts of a growing town. At the time it was built, the church was one of the largest congregations in the city, seating 2,500 people in its grand auditorium.
The monumental, red-brick building survived major changes to Elliot Park. Sections of the neighborhood were demolished to make way for Interstates 94 and 35W. The construction of the Metrodome created a desperate need for surface parking lots which flattened many of the neighborhood’s assets. As the physical landscape of the neighborhood changed, so did the needs of the community.
Todd Bratulich is the Associate Pastor at First Covenant. When he joined First Covenant in 2009, the church was undergoing major changes. The congregation had been in decline for about 50 years. Only 70 to 80 members attended regularly – mostly commuters from the suburbs and neighborhoods outside of Elliot Park.
When the head pastor, Dan Collison attended his first planning meeting with the East Downtown Business Partnership in 2010, he was surprised that to see that First Covenant was not on the map of neighborhood assets. “First Covenant needed to earn the right to be there.” Todd explained. They needed to re-contextualize and align their mission with the needs of the community. “After 140 years, why are we here?”
The church opened the door to new possibilities, reaching out to a number of institutions in the community. At Seventh Street South and Chicago Avenue, the church sits on the edge of downtown near HCMC and the Light Rail station. The church’s empty space and its proximity to downtown were some of its most valuable assets. In the winter of 2010, the Salvation Army was seeking additional space for an emergency overflow shelter, and First Covenant opened the doors to the homeless.
First Covenant did not only want to be a shelter, but a community. The church facilitated listening sessions with their new residents, learning that when you are homeless, having a meal in the same place as you sleep is a luxury. In response, the church coordinated volunteers to serve meals to the shelter guests and mediated discussions between the guests and the shelter providers. By listening to first-hand experiences of homelessness, the church aims to create a catalyst for change.
“Everyone deserves a home.” Todd explained, “We were called as a congregation to guard the dignity and humanity of people.”
Of course, the issue of homelessness cannot be solved overnight. First Covenant looked for long-term solutions to securing stable homes within a safe and sustainable community. A growing relationship with HCMC brought Upstream Health to their quarters as well as a low- income housing and workforce programs. First Covenant is also part Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness. They participate in “Street Voices for Change,” a program that works with those experiencing homelessness on self-advocacy and engaging them in such activities as going to the State Capitol for Homeless Day on the Hill to share their experiences face-to-face with the state’s decision-makers”
Today the congregation is 300 households strong. At First Covenant, downtown executives worship alongside the residents of the shelter. Building connections among community has created dynamic leaders within the church. Todd emphasized the power of investing in community, using their space as an asset and listening to voices of the community to create a positive change.