During Food Week of Action and every day, Wisconsin church lives out its mission


Opening hearts and doors

By Andrew Kang Bartlett | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church’s gardens double as a workplace development site. Courtesy of Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church

LOUISVILLE – Many churches preach about poverty and hunger a few times a year, but Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee lives out its ministries with the poor 365 days a year.

The Rev. Karen Hagen, Tippecanoe pastor, calls her church a “faithing community” or a “spiritual practicum.” The church’s budget illustrates the church’s emphasis on faithful, spirit-filled ministries. In 2016, the church budget was $129,000. The missions budget was $129,000.

“Using an action-discernment model of ministry, we have learned again and again when you do right things, right things happen,” said Hagen. “When you walk in the ways of Jesus, toward right relationship and justice for all, the doors of our hearts open wide putting people before buildings and budgets!”

God and the Word were clearly at work from the beginning. With almost no money, this worshiping/doing community started out by developing a Living Waters Contemplative Life Center that extended beyond the building where they met. First, people acknowledged that their own spiritual development was essential to anything – and everything – they would do as a collective. The work on their inner lives allowed them to take greater risks, and now they’ve been doing homelessness ministries for ten years.

They listened to the expressed needs of people around them, and they created ministries to meet those needs. The Divine Intervention Ministry to the Homeless, a collaboration of 56 faith communities and groups (Boy Scouts, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and no faith), meets immediate needs, life skill requirements, and many longer-term struggles of unhoused people impacted by poverty.

There are many regulations concerning shelters, so instead of having a shelter in a legal sense, Tippecanoe offers the community a “warming room.” It offers no cooking, no showers, no beds. Typically 20 to 25 unhoused individuals come from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. each day, where they share in a potluck dinner and have a safe place to rest. Hagen observed, “Most homeless folks are exhausted living on the streets so are ready to sleep by 7:30 p.m.” 

The ministry also connects guests to local resources. A case worker comes weekly to assist with various needs. In addition to housing people every night throughout the winter, Hagen writes letters of reference and helps connect people to housing through their case workers. Last year, 39 individuals were housed or joined programs, and furnishings were provided for 21 people transforming new apartments into homes

Just Good Food Garden

Karen Hagen, Tippecanoe pastor. Courtesy of Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church

A byproduct of Tippecanoe’s work with unhoused people was the development of a Just Good Food Garden. Hagen described her philosophy in moving from a charity model to a justice approach to ministry.

“I grew up in a family ‘with eyes to see and courage to talk about what was seen.’ So, I developed a deeper level of caring about those around me, which also helped me to see my own economic and white privilege,” she said. “I believe that a path of contemplative justice is the way to personal peace and corporate responsibility.”

The people at Tippecanoe Church believe that the way in is the way out. This faithing community is not about making someone else their mission; their ministries are grounded in their own growth and spiritual journey. The hard work is sustained by the inner work, and all this brings them closer to the realm of divine justice.

“This journey is a tippy canoe, like our name,” says Hagen. “We are on a trip towards the horizon. We set sail for a horizon, knowing from experience that as we move, things keep changing. Some of us zig-zag or circle around; some head toward the horizon. All of us are critical to us all staying afloat.”

The food production work started with building victory gardens. Tippecanoe invited people from the community to grow their own food, providing space and resources. Then many of them wanted gardens in their backyards, so the gardens morphed to offer homeless guests they knew the opportunity to grow food to be given away at a local food pantry.

A volunteer cooks for a healthy dining class. Courtesy of Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church

The gardens serve as a workforce development training site. For the past five years, Tippecanoe has covenanted with homeless interns to work in the gardens. They have the opportunity to do meaningful work, earn some income and have a safe place to be during the summer, and pick up some job readiness skills. Tippecanoe also makes available a master gardener and a community educator to work with the interns.

Four interns have grown 4,000 pounds of organic produce this year in raised beds and on the rooftop garden. They also have a giving garden, where people can help themselves to organically-grown vegetables. Two interns bring the food to Friedens Food Pantry at Hope House, a homeless shelter.  There, the produce is arranged like in a grocery store and recipes are shared. A volunteer cooks that week’s pantry items and shares samples. Past interns have found employment, and some have been helped to find housing.

Once a month, a healthy casserole class is held using produce from the pantry. The community educator demonstrates how to cook a casserole, while participants learn chopping, measuring and recipe-reading skills. When it’s ready, everyone enjoys the fruit of their labor. Attendees then are invited to take home ingredients so they can duplicate the casserole at home.

Mission and Worship

On Labor Day this year, as part of their worship, Tippecanoe members harvested some of the bounty from the garden. With vegetables in hand, they went out through the neighborhood and gave neighbors produce and thank-you cards for being good neighbors.

“We make sure the water is buoyant with spiritual awareness and a sense of belonging. If you fall in, you may get wet, but you’re not going down,” said Hagen.

Tippecanoe is one of the congregations and groups around the U.S. participating in the Food Week of Action. The Presbyterian Hunger Program is able to share God’s love with our neighbors in need around the world because of gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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