PC(USA) congregation in Minneapolis co-creates a healing space with sex-trafficked neighbors

Liberty Community Church heals through a womanist ethic

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

As womanist theologians, the pastors of Liberty Community Church in Minneapolis are seeking the healing of their Northside neighborhood through co-creating spaces of rest and resistance with individuals victimized by the sex trafficking trade and within a community suffering from the effects of systemic poverty and structural racism.

In the third of a series of videos on Liberty Community Church, co-pastor the Rev. Dr. Alika P. Galloway discussed the transformation of one of Liberty’s campuses into a healing space for victims of sex trafficking. She described the need of people who practice “survival sex” (engaging in sexual exchanges for survival needs such as food and shelter) to have a place to rest, to remember who they are, to revisit and to resist objectification. “The sin is not that you are selling your body,” said Galloway. “The sin is that we live in a culture where you have to.”

Northside Healing Space is just one of many initiatives that the Matthew 25 congregation has supported over the past 25 years in its efforts to address the multiple layers of oppression experienced by its neighbors through cycles of systemic poverty and the historic realities of structural racism. Liberty operates its ministries out of two campuses that were once other PC(USA) congregations. These congregations closed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the majority of their remaining members moved their membership to suburban congregations.

Growing up, Sheila Sheldon was a member of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, which is now the site of Liberty’s Northside Healing Space. As part of the research conducted in the creation of the videos, Sheldon spoke with Presbyterian News Service about the beginning of the ministry that would become Liberty and what it means for her to see the new healing ministry in the space where she was baptized and confirmed.

Sheila Sheldon is the Educational Ministries director at Valley Presbyterian Church in the greater Minneapolis area. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“I was a teenager at the time that it was a new church development using our basement,” said Sheldon. “I would go downstairs after worship with Highland Park, and kind of hang out a little.”

In 1999, when Highland Park celebrated its last worship service in the space on Pentecost Sunday, Sheldon decided to stay and participate in the new congregation, volunteering with the children’s Christian education program. “I grew to love the congregation, and they helped me transform from a teenager into a young adult,” said Sheldon, who calls Galloway a mentor and a guide.

Sheldon now serves as Educational Ministries director at Valley Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley in the greater Minneapolis area, where most of the remaining 30 members of Highland Park, including Sheldon’s grandmother, moved their membership.

That congregation continues to partner with Liberty to support its ministries with volunteers and finances and by participating in the Anti-Racism Task Force of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. Liberty’s co-pastor, the Rev. Dr. Ralph E. Galloway, acknowledged the importance of partnerships with Valley, Westminster Presbyterian Church and the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area in providing volunteers and financial assistance to sustain and expand the ways the church serves the vulnerable in North Minneapolis when so many of his own congregants work two or three jobs. Both money and free time are tight.

Sheldon learned a lot about faith through the closure of her childhood church and the transformation of it into Liberty and specifically Northside Healing Space. “I was the youngest member at age 18. I remember watching the elders make the decision to say goodbye to the building that they loved and had cared for. To let it go was hard. But it showed me that after death comes new life,” said Sheldon.

Sheldon described how through Valley’s partnership with Liberty, the members of Highland Park appreciate being able to watch the ministry of Liberty and its impact on the community grow. She finds hope in how a space so dear to them continues to serve the community. “We don’t own the building of our churches; they’re really not ours,” said Sheldon, whose great-grandparents were members of Highland Park. “It belongs to the community; it belongs to Christ. You should never hold onto it too tightly but be OK with letting it go so that something new and wonderful can be born out of it.”

In the early 2000s, as Liberty’s congregation grew in size and property, they moved their worship and after-school programing to the campus of the former Calvary Presbyterian Church, leaving the arched ceiling and stained-glass windows of Highland Park open for a new purpose and call to witness in the neighborhood.

The Rev. Dr. Alika P. Galloway is co-pastor of Liberty Community Church and executive director of Northside Healing Space. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Sitting on the stoop of that sanctuary, the Alika Galloway would listen to the stories of women and youth in her neighborhood and felt called to create the Northside Healing Space. Part of the process included securing a grant to renovate the space and selling stained-glass windows that featured white men. Galloway recalled the moment she knew the windows had to go, when a transgender youth told her the images kept them from feeling welcome or healed in the space despite the removal of pews and the new, comfortable furnishings.

Today the light-filled sanctuary, renovated dining spaces, therapy offices, and artfully decorated labyrinth and yoga room welcome the weary and wounded as well as groups of weavers, young gardeners, and other community groups focused on healing and resisting the violence and microaggressions that society turns on bodies, especially Black and brown ones.

The Rev. Roberta Jones (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Jesus put his hands on people,” said the Rev. Roberta Jones, who serves on session at Liberty, co-leads its social justice advocacy ministry and hosts a weaving circle for women at the Northside Healing Space. “Healing can take place not just through words of comfort, but in actually getting down into the mud and touching people.”

The Rev. Cyreta Oduniyi, who serves as the chief operating officer of the Northside Healing Space and as the pastor for Youth Development at Liberty, said that her womanist training has helped her to discern how to both hold a boundary and cross a border when someone is in crisis and in need of help. “You always invite God into the space,” said Oduniyi. “That’s how you ground the chaos.”

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