Over the past six months, I’ve been spending time with San Pablo / St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. It was established in 1888 and for much of its history, served a community of Scandinavian immigrants. But over time, the demographics of the neighborhood shifted and now many of its members have Hispanic and Latin-x roots. The pews are populated with first and second generation immigrants. The services are bilingual, even if many of the congregants are not. They may speak English or Spanish or both, and it works.

We wanted to talk about belonging. The history of this place was book-ended by immigrant experiences. It became a place where people could find community. A place where they could belong. And especially in a season when conversations about difference are fraught, we wanted to talk about belonging.

I talked to the congregation about the stories we wanted to collect. We set up our studio after services, during neighborhood health screenings and vaccination clinics. We sat down and recorded a few oral histories.

Unfortunately I am monolingual, unless you consider the marginal German I learned in high school and college. My Spanish language skills are exhausted shortly after saying, “Hi, my name is John. It’s good to meet you.” So the experience of listening and conversation was different, but we figured it out. 

Our central question was, “When have you felt a sense of belonging?”

Some people wanted to respond in English. Others in Spanish. People around us helped with translation. The longer oral histories were even more interesting. I’ve done this before with the help of a translator and there’s a balance and finesse to navigate across the language barrier. Interrupt too often to translate and you lose the rhythm of the conversation. Wait too long and something might get lost.

I like to make eye contact with the person I am interviewing, even if I can’t understand the words. It’s amazing how much can be conveyed through inflection and tone. Simple human connection. The verbal translation along the way captures the spirit of the conversation so we can keep moving. Later, the text transcription and translation can capture things word for word to make certain we were accurate.

Last Sunday, we revealed the work to the congregation. We printed 13 portraits on 12-foot high banners that were mounted on the exterior walls of the church. They will be there for a year, so if you are in the area, stop by and take a look.

We printed large 24” x 36” prints of all the stories and they were on display in the pews. The three-dimensional people sat interspersed amongst the two-dimensional people and the stories sparked new conversations and connections. There was live music. Wood-fired pizza. A dunk tank. It was a celebration of the place, a celebration of the people, and a celebration of belonging.

A special thanks to the Lake Street Council, the Bethlehem Foundation, and the American Swedish Institute for helping to make this series possible.

You’ll find many of the stories below, but make sure to visit St. Paul’s website to see the whole collection.

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