A Mighty (Virtual) Fortress: Bethel Lutheran Evolves with the Times
Brenda L. Froisland is the current pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Photo by Phil Radke
For the first time in 121 years, worshipers did not gather in Minneapolis’s Bethel Lutheran Church to rejoice together on Easter morning. COVID-19 is no respecter of persons.
Looking back, Bethel’s current pastor, Brenda L. Froisland, describes how her church moved from its 1899 site at E. 32nd Street and Bloomington Avenue, then to the Swedish Chapel on E. 31st and 18th Avenue, later building new homes, one in 1905 (now a “prospering Latvian Lutheran Church”) and its current home at 4120 17th Ave.
“Here, on 5 February, 1956,” she explains, “our current building celebrated the Service on Entry, its new congregation a merger of the Bethel and Nazareth Lutheran churches.”
“Bethel,” Froisland shares, “is dedicated to ministry with neighbors, near and far. We are proud to be a place where members, friends, and strangers come for community events, to play in the yard, to vote, to take a book from our Little Free Library, and just relax at the community labyrinth.”
They share the building with Nokomis Healthy Seniors, Bancroft Neighborhood Association, Allured Music Studio, Casa de Oracion Minnesota, and Casa de Oracion Pentecostal, along with more than a dozen other organizations that meet regularly at Bethel.
“Our mission reads, ‘In gratitude, Bethel Lutheran Church amplifies God’s grace, nourishes all creation, reaches out and builds community.’ We are committed to social justice, social love and connection, God’s great gifts of life, and sharing our love, space, and welcome with our community.”
To that end, “All people, without exception,” Froisland states, “are a part of God’s story and are invited and encouraged to actively participate. Our message leans toward grace and radical love. We meet people wherever they are in faith and welcome their questions about faith and religion. We see God-given faith as our foundation and try not to let human-made religious traditions and practices get in the way of living out our faith day after day.”
Bethel’s acceptance of the LGBTQ community confirms this statement. “Our foundation of all are welcome, without exception,” explains Froisland, “was originally picked up by the congregation around the GLBTQAI+ issue. Ministry colleague Pastor Glen Wheeler helped the congregation understand that, in baptism, all people are welcome into God’s family and there is no exception for people who learn and explore a minority sexual orientation as they grow… The congregation learned quite well and quite quickly what radical love looks like.”
“We do weddings for all people,” Froisland continues, adding, “I am open and honest about my orientation and my wife at all times.” Her comment gives a glimpse into her journey along her own spiritual path as she began her degree work at Luther Seminary in 2000.
“I was aware of my sexual orientation, but was not in a relationship at the time. I knew that if I did date or get into a relationship that I would not be welcome to be a pastor in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), but I felt my call to the church, and followed it. Then, in 2001, I met Mary. I tried not to fall in love, but did, and we were united in 2006 at St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church, with many Bethel members in attendance.”
After four years of seminary study, she applied to be Director of Youth and Family Ministry at Bethel. “When I interviewed, I was honest about my partner, Mary Chilvers. Having recently become a Reconciling in Christ congregation, they assured me that my relationship with Mary was something to be celebrated.”
Froisland held that position for five and a half years, and when that position was eliminated, disappointment was replaced by joy in 2012, when the synod office called to say Bethel was seeking a pastor. After two interviews, and presentation as final candidate, “the congregation voted to call me as pastor. I was ordained at Bethel Lutheran Church in June of 2012.”
Access was a major consideration from the building’s first brick, “so there are very few stairs within our space; the balcony is the only area not accessible by wheel chair or walker.” But there are many different problems to address.
Froisland recalls, “One of my first Sundays as pastor, a person who was deaf came to worship and struggled to understand what I was preaching, even though she read lips.” Unable to help that individual, they took steps: “Since then, we have engaged in a relationship with Bread of Life Deaf Lutheran Church so that we can learn about Deaf culture, have relationships with people who are deaf, and join together in ministry where it is appropriate.”
As a Reconciling in Christ Congregation (RIC), Froisland relates, “Bethel Children, Youth & Family bridges generations to model, equip, and encourage a foundation of trust in God’s story. [At] neighborhood events, we bring games for the kids to play and take the opportunity to talk with the adults. We want people to know we are here, and that all are welcome. In addition to worship services, Bethel offers Sunday School for all ages, preschool playgroup, open gym, scouting (Girl and BSA), a book club, a winter concert series, quilting, youth group, a racial justice initiative, mission trips, Bible Study, bell and voice choirs, and hosts the South Minneapolis Summer Day Camp.”
All these activities bring people together—too close together for safety today. Which brings us back to Easter. How was Holy Week brought to Bethel’s congregants and friends this year? Not corporeally, admits Froisland, but via techniques inconceivable in 1899: “We learned to go virtual.”
“As Holy Week approached and it was clear we were not going to be able to meet in person as a congregation, we had also learned some hard lessons about what worked and what did not work for virtual worship… So we decided to pre-tape our services and splice together our videos to make up meaningful worship services.” The decision to do the Easter service with three other congregations steepened the learning curve.
“We started with the Holy Week services that were mostly put together and over a week taped portions of four services: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. We did not record them in order… We called folks in to be readers (while social distancing). We would mess up hugely and start all over again and again and again. We managed, with hours and hours of work by Phil (Radtke, Director of Music), to present some pretty great service on YouTube that premiered at the time of the published service time, to encourage our community to worship together.’’ And it worked.
“We have already been discussing what we will do when we can gather again in person. Our services have been watched by many more folks then would show up in [physical] worship. I have not checked how many actually watched the service in its entirety, but we believe we will still need to keep a virtual presence out there when this pandemic is over.”
Undaunted, Froisland enthused, “We like the challenge and continue to learn many, many new things.”
Bethel Lutheran Church
4120 S. 17th Ave.