Building apartments in the sky
Inside Gethsemane Lutheran Church.
By Mary Kettl
Some people will do anything to help.
For the members of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, the oldest ELCA congregation in Seattle, it took giving away the sky above them to put a roof over the heads of other people.
Gethsemane has been working to address the needs of people living in poverty and coping with homelessness for decades, according to their pastor, Joanne Engquist. But members were frustrated with only being able to treat the symptoms of growing poverty and homelessness in their neighborhood. They wanted to make more significant changes.
Years ago Gethsemane was facing hard choices about its own future. Although they had been in the same spot on Stewart Street since 1901, the congregation had shrunk to 35-40 worshipping members, and the congregation's future was uncertain. They chose to stay -- “in Christ, in the city.”
When Gethsemane sold a parking lot and an expensive high-rise apartment building went up on the spot, they were inspired. Gethsemane members wanted to use proceeds from that sale to serve people who worked in low-paying jobs in the neighborhood but could not afford to live anywhere near their work.
Through a partnership with a local non-profit, Gethsemane was able to design and convert its church property into three interconnected areas. Most of the first two floors provide space for the church’s ministries and community outreach.
The lower level houses the new ecumenical nonprofit Hope Center, which offers community services, meal programs and Mary’s Place Day Center, a weekday program where homeless women and their children can find community, enrichment and resources to restore their lives.
But perhaps the most unusual addition has been the five floors of affordable apartments that were built right above the church, changing the property’s profile from the old two-story box-like structure to a seven-story tower.
The building is home to 50 apartments, 30 of which are occupied by people who had been living on the streets or in shelters only six months ago. Others in the building are living with disabilities. Rents are based on income with levels for those at 30, 40, and 60 percent of median county income.
Having a safe, attractive place to live is “just transformative” for people, says Joanne. Both she and the congregation share “a deep belief that together we grow.”
A tiny, older church transformed into a center of service may not be what the original members envisioned a century ago, but Joanne sees it as “a signal that we believe in a future that we only have glimpses of right now,” a future that may become a model for other institutions and perhaps even for the church.
Mary Kettl is a recovering 7th-grade English teacher from Wyoming who lives and writes in Rochester, Minn.
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