Ministry Imagination Grants: Imagine. Innovate. Initiate.
By Nick Tangen
Every Wednesday at Zion Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis a group of congregants and neighbors gather to serve and share a meal and build community around the table. These Lyndale Community Dinners have been a staple of this neighborhood’s life for nearly 20 years, and the “little church with a big heart” continues to find ways to expand and deepen the relationships that have begun in the small church basement.
The meals began as a high school after-school program, where students were invited to come to church for a quiet and communal place to study. As this program grew, parents were invited and a meal, initially called Zion’s Low-Cost Meal, was added.
Over the years the dinners have evolved, menus have shifted, and organizers have been hired. At one point the congregation hired a dietician and nutritionist to cook and help educate the community about healthy eating. The Lyndale Neighborhood Association became a partner, and now has staff dedicated to helping plan and lead the weekly gatherings.
Throughout this evolution, what has become clear is that the strength of Lyndale Community Dinners are the relationships and connections that are made around the dinner table and in the kitchen. Families, Zion members, and neighbors all gather together on Wednesday evenings to share food and conversation.
“The goal really is to develop relationships within the community,” said Deana Miller, Zion’s primary dinner organizer. “It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a member of Zion or not. Just come and eat with us.”
“We want to be a space where the neighborhood can gather every week,” said Pastor CJ Valenti.
IT IS THIS COMMITMENT to community engagement that inspired the leadership at Zion Lutheran Church to apply for a Ministry Imagination Grant through the Minneapolis Area Synod. Leaders noticed early on that folks would eat quickly, clear their plate, and move along making deeper connection a challenge.
“It was hard to connect. If our goal is to get to know our neighbor, we needed a way to keep them here,” said Deana.
In the past, this was accomplished by providing services and educational opportunities, including a free flu clinic or presentations from Mental Health Connect. But, with the dollars from the Imagination Grant, the Visioning Team was able to expand these opportunities and add some other community building elements.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a member of Zion or not. Just come and eat with us.”
“We wanted to have activities after the dinner to encourage people to stay,” said Deana. “So, we did surveys with the people who came, and we asked, ‘What would you like to do?’”
Among activities that emerged from these surveys were things like Bingo, trivia, presentations on neighborhood resources, craft nights, and board game nights. With money from the Ministry Imagination Grant, the Visioning Team was able to purchase materials, games, and prizes and to pay stipends for speakers and presenters. The goal is to set the table for more engagement and to encourage dinner attendees to stick around and have some fun with their neighbors.
ON THE EVENING I attended the Lyndale Community Dinner, chili and potato salad were on the menu, and the kitchen was full of South High School students. Haakon, a senior at South High and regular volunteer at the dinners, organized members of the National Honor Society to help prepare and serve the meal as a way to fulfill service-hour requirements.
Neighbors and congregants meandered into the Fellowship Hall, greeting one another and remarking on the wonderful smells rising from the kitchen. The attendees spanned the generations: kids chasing each other around tables, teens working hard in the kitchen, parents seeming to revel in the free time for their children, and seniors catching up with one another about mutual friends. The group was small but the connections in the room were palpable.
Deana, in particular, was sure to greet each attendee warmly by name, and invite them to stay around after the dinner. “It’s trivia tonight!” she’d muse.
“Neighbors and congregants meandered into the Fellowship Hall, greeting one another and remarking on the wonderful smells rising from the kitchen.”
The dinner began with some quick announcements, including dates for the upcoming flu clinics and the annual Thanksgiving dinner. Following announcements, dinner guests lined up and were served buffet style by the South High students.
I sat at a table with Deana who introduced me to Rachel and Christopher, two young parents who were new to the neighborhood, and their daughter McKenzie. They had lived in Minneapolis for a number of years, but when they moved to the Lyndale neighborhood were looking for a place to connect with neighbors.
Christopher said that the “friendly atmosphere and the good food” kept them coming back week after week. McKenzie seconded her father’s endorsement, saying “The food is so good!”
Conversation around the tables continued while folks returned to the line for seconds and apple crisp for dessert. After the dishes had been cleared, Deana began reminding everyone to stick around for trivia and to begin assembling teams of three or four. About a dozen of the 20 dinner guests stayed for the game, moving to the back of the Fellowship Hall and finalizing teams.
“It was clear from my time at the dinner that the vision for a deeper connection among neighbors and congregants is being accomplished through the hard work of volunteers and leaders, and the resources provided from the Ministry Imagination Grant.”
Deana passed out call bells, newly purchased with Imagination Grant dollars, for each team to ring in with answers. Rounds titled “Americana” and “Comedy Movies” sparked lively conversation, nostalgia, and laughter as team members discussed answers and shared stories sparked by particular questions.
The winning team was awarded bright LED golden stars, taken from Deana’s vast collection of game prizes, another Imagination Grant purchase.
It was clear from my time at the dinner that the vision for a deeper connection among neighbors and congregants is being accomplished through the hard work of volunteers and leaders, and the resources provided from the Ministry Imagination Grant.
“This grant has allowed us to foster this community in deeper ways,” said Pastor Valenti.
IN THE COMING MONTHS the Lyndale Community Dinners will have opportunities for neighbors to craft Christmas decorations, play bingo, and continue developing the connections that have been made around the dinner table.
With help from the Minneapolis Area Synod’s Ministry Imagination Grant, this “little church with a big heart” will continue to graciously invite neighbors and congregants to eat with one another and to build relationships, helping to build a just and healthy Lyndale neighborhood.
“Over the years the dinners have evolved, menus have shifted, and organizers have been hired.”
“I think it’s really important for Zion, who has been on this corner for 126 years to continue the outreach into the community,” said Deana. “We’re feeding people literally and figuratively.”
The Lyndale Community Dinners take place every Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m., at Zion Lutheran Church. Stop by for a good meal, lively conversation, and round or two of trivia!