Bethel Tapestry

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

By Hannah Gruber '10
Issue 19 | Spring/Summer 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Matt Wenell’s diverse South Minneapolis duplex looks much different than the homogenous neighborhood where he grew up in Fargo, N.D. The senior business major now has Somali, Latino, and African-American neighbors, and the relationships he builds with them are learning experiences for his Bethel anthropology class—Intentional Urban Living.

Students in this two-credit course are required to live in an urban context to explore and analyze the social and political structures as well as the theological issues of the area. Challenging and involving significant commitment, the courses Intentional Urban Living I and II have drawn only three to five students each year since they were started in 1997. But the students from many majors put into action one of Bethel’s core values—to be salt and light, relating to the world in relevant ways.

Breaking the Mold

In 1992, five Bethel students moved into the Phillips neighborhood just south of downtown Minneapolis to live together in intentional community and to love their neighbors.

“We helped out with existing neighborhood organizations and projects, but we wanted our presence in the house to be organic and neighborly,” says Jenell Williams Paris ’94, one of the five students who started the urban house. She is now a professor of sociology and anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.

Seeing their impact, Bethel bought the house and began renting it out to other students wanting to serve the neighborhood. “It was a group of students whose only goal was to learn how to be a neighbor. They didn’t have any ministry plan; in fact, we didn’t want them to have a ministry plan,” says Harley Schreck, chair of the Department of Anthropology, Sociology, and Reconciliation Studies and a professor of Intentional Urban Living. “We just wanted them to learn how to be a neighbor and to learn about their neighbors.”

With time, more and more students wanted to live in the house, but it became less about living intentionally in the neighborhood. Instead, it was just an off-campus living option. “Students and I really insisted it become a credit bearing experience because some of the students who entered the house didn’t have the same vision as the students who started it,” Schreck explains.

So Intentional Urban Living I and II were created. Now students in the classes are no longer required to live in a designated, Bethel-owned house; they can live wherever they choose within Minneapolis or St. Paul. “Students get to deeply explore their neighborhoods, meet key leaders in the cities, and identify and participate in many aspects of urban life,” Schreck says. “It is also one of the most enjoyable courses to teach or take because of the deep friendships that develop with other students, professors, and community residents and leaders.”

Following God's Lead

Wenell had heard of Urban Homeworks, which rehabs homes and converts them into duplexes to be used for building intentional community. So when the opportunity arose for him to take Intentional Urban Living, he knew exactly where he wanted to live—an Urban Homeworks duplex. “The door just kind of opened, and it lined up really well with where God was leading my heart at the time,” Wenell says. “I just followed what seemed to be the Spirit’s leading.”

And that led him into new environments. “I had very limited experience with different socioeconomic groups and perspectives and different racial groups,” Wenell explains. “So as my eyes started opening to the depth and complexity of racial issues and poverty, my desire was to experience that and make it more personal than just statistics and concepts.”

To that end, he has befriended his neighbor Marilyn Brooks, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and says interacting with Wenell and his roommates is refreshing. “They are very good people. He is respectful,” Brooks says.

Like Wenell, Kelsey Manfred ’11 has come to know her neighbors in part because of the Intentional Urban Living course. Her interactions with those living close to her often happen in the laundry room of her north St. Paul apartment complex. “My purpose [in taking the class] was to learn the needs of a community, and then figure out what’s being done to address them,” Manfred explains. “And also as a Christian, what are my responsibilities regarding social issues and social justice in the community I’m living in?”

As salt and light, Wenell, Manfred, and many others are learning how to better answer that question.