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A common framework: The story of St. Luke in Minnetonka and American Indians

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Louise Matson of the Division of Indian Work walks to the sweat lodge at St. Luke Presbyterian Church along with church members Cecy Faster and Lori Cocking on Thursday, Dec. 20.

MINNETONKA — One church in the Twin Cities metro area has a notably long history of outreach to the American Indians of the Upper Midwest. It’s not merely writing checks; it’s involved on a personal level.

And here is why that personal touch makes a difference: Last fall, Lori Cocking, a member of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka, was speaking with an American Indian woman with a nonprofit that supports the homeless encampment at Franklin and Hiawatha avenues in the Little Earth area of Minneapolis. They spoke about the need for clothing as winter cold set in.

Within a week, the church provided blankets, coats and boots — not just hand-me-downs, either. These were goods worthy of cold weather.

“Not everyone donates suitable clothing,” said Louise Matson, executive director of the Division of Indian Work.

Cocking spoke about when she interacts with the urban Indian population: “When you bring up St. Luke, it is like this trust from people who don’t have any reason to trust anybody.”

Members of St. Luke, 3121 Groveland School Road, sat down with Lakeshore Weekly News to discuss their relationship with indigenous people.

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A portrait of Sitting Bull by watercolor artist Billy Janis hangs in a meeting room adjacent to the church offices. The portrait was purchased in spring 2012 by St. Luke women who sew at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

St. Luke’s member Cecy Faster said the church has been involved as far back as the 1970s, with the rising profile of the American Indian Movement. She and others have been to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota many times, starting in the 1980s.

“We were interested in causes nobody else was interested in at that time,” she said.

Cocking said the interest grew out of the social justice concerns of the 1960s and ’70s. St. Luke has a strong history of social justice.

“I felt like I was back in college when I came here,” she said.

Behind the church is a sweat lodge. She said the lodge belongs to the Indian community, and for a time it was the only one in the Twin Cities.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to offer that space,” said Senior Pastor Brennan Blue. “We are really on Dakota Ojibwe land.”

One year, there was vandalism, and the Indians asked church members not to inform police. Word eventually traveled to the Minnetonka Police Department anyway, and it leafleted the neighborhood and had a community gathering to make people aware of the sacred nature of the location.

Matson, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said it is a nice resource and is heavily used. Her agency, the Division of Indian Work, last winter split from the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches to have greater American Indian autonomy.

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A KARE 11 rain gauge graces the fence of one of the gardens for growing organic vegetables on the church property. Some of the vegetables go toward providing indigenous food to indigenous people in the Twin Cities.

St. Luke is a strong support for the DIW. In 1952, the federal government began encouraging Native Americans to relocate from reservations to urban centers. The Division of Indian Work was founded about 65 years ago to assist with transitions to the urban Twin Cities. It’s building stands out at 1001 E. Lake St. in Minneapolis.

DIW has a program to build youth leadership. It has programs to strengthen families and address homelessness and to aid foster children. Several programs specifically target healthy outcomes, and among them is eating indigenous food for free, rather than the processed foods that can lead to diabetes. The program’s fundraiser is best known as LEAP.

Matson said among the ways the church helps is through the healthy eating initiative, even growing food to donate. St. Luke has deep roots when it comes to healthy food — Lakewinds Co-op started behind St. Luke — and the church has gardens on its grounds to address multiple hunger needs, such as giving to the local food shelves.

DIW has support from other sources, too, of course, such as the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux and the Ho-chunk Nation in Wisconsin.

The youth of St. Luke have gone to the Division of Indian Work to work, and there have been education presentations at St. Luke on indigenous affairs. Members of St. Luke attend events at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis and native leaders know members of St. Luke.

Faster said part of St. Luke’s own social justice work is to study first, then provide active support to foster partnerships and ultimately friendships.

“We don’t function like a charity,” Faster said. “We honor and respect the groups we work with, whether they are Native American or other groups.”

Blue agreed.

“Whenever we have a new work, a new cause, we dive in,” he said.

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A mural inside the church entrance at St. Luke in Minnetonka says: “Do good everyday.”

He said the church seeks solidarity so it can operate from a common framework.

“It shapes us as much as we are shaping the world for good in any way,” Blue said.

Matson said American Indians are relational — good people who want to get to know others — but they don’t have a good history with institutions. That’s why St Luke’s personal approach is welcomed, she said.

Cocking said because there is trust, it lends itself to better conversations, like providing the right clothing, not just clothes.

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