Want to hear an old stalwart from the Green Hymnal, something like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” or “Day by Day”? But this time it’s to be played at an up-tempo bluegrass beat by a combo of Lutheran clerics. Oh, and they’ll perform it at an Irish pub, and the guys propping up the bar are invited to join in on the chorus.
That’s the scene on the fourth Monday of the month when Pastor Scott Simmons and his band, the Fleshpots of Egypt, perform Hymntap for the crowd at the Dubliner Irish pub on University Avenue. The musicians pass out hymnals, which they call “user manuals,” and lead anywhere from 60 to 100 bar patrons in song. It’s a safe bet that for most of the crowd it’s been a long time (if ever) since they last raised their voices to praise the Lord in four-part harmony, but that’s the point.
“It brings us in contact with people who often don’t know anything about hymns,” says Simmons. As for the anthems themselves, “We grass ’em up,” declares Simmons, who points out that the band’s repertoire also extends to Southern Baptist and Evangelical favorites like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and occasionally includes his own compositions.
Hymntap may be the most attention-catching activity of the Lutheran ministry known as Lydia Place, but it’s right in line with the group’s central mission.
“First and foremost, Lydia Place is about providing a safe environment for relationships and collaboration. We want to listen, accompany, sit and see where we are called to build this neighborhood.”
Lydia Place got its start a couple of years ago when a group of associated with Luther Seminary in St. Anthony Park began exploring the possibilities for establishing a ministry in the burgeoning area surrounding the Green Line on University Avenue. Simmons, who graduated from the seminary in 2012, was appointed the first pastor of Lydia Place.
He and his colleagues knew right from the start, however, that they weren’t going to establish a conventional congregation.
“We didn’t want to start a storefront church,” he says, but they did want to address the needs of the typically young and often low-income residents who are drawn to work in the growing nonprofit and arts-oriented businesses that are drawn to the area.
“In this neighborhood,” says Simmons, “there are lots of home-based, self-employed people, including writers and artists. Often they feel isolated without a connection or a place to meet outside of home.”
Lydia Place wants to provide that connection space, both in terms of offering a physical meeting place and offering more intangible opportunities to share a sense of community through activities like Hymntap. Simmons’ group “bounced around a while,” establishing bonds with neighborhood organizations from the Urban Growler microbrewery to Seal Place High Rise. That’s all in accord with their policy of “radically accepting hospitality of others.”
Taking their group’s name from the Greek woman from the Book of Acts who offered the Apostle Paul shelter in her household, Lydia Place is dedicated to witnessing to their faith while establishing bonds with the secular communities around them.
The group has established a worship service at Seal High-Rise, but they’re also expanding their activities in a what they call a co-worker space they’ve established through the generosity of Khanh Tran, the owner of Dow Art Gallery, at University and Hampden avenues. Amid the stark white walls and colorful mobiles, professionally lit canvasses and photographs of the gallery, Lydia Place is establishing a well-equipped meeting room that seats up to 40 and is open to any community group that wants to give Simmons a call. They’re asking for a free-will offering of $35 an hour for use of the room, which they plan to use to upgrade the audiovisual facilities of the space.
They call this process co-working. “There will be room for discussions of how faith moves us, but never in a prescriptive way,” Simmons says.
Lydia Place has also recently started holding Sunday evening worship services open to all at the Dow Art Gallery. On a recent steamy-hot Sunday, Simmons cut an unusual figure as he led the small congregation in prayer in the decidedly secular setting of an art gallery. Wearing lightweight clerical garb while accompanying himself on the guitar and singing in a pleasant tenor, Simmons also delivered a sermon on the Book of Job, as the sounds of light-rail trains chugging by on the nearby Green Line occasionally rose from the street outside.
Simmons comes by his faith in the old-fashioned way. He grew up in the Lutheran church, as the son of a band director in eastern Colorado. At 57, he refers to the ministry as “my first career,” but admits he “did some other stuff on the way” to realizing his calling. After college in Missouri, he worked in advertising for many years. He experienced personal tragedy when his first wife died at 31, and he learned fortitude when he encountered a cancer diagnosis in his own life.
He was “drawn deeper into his faith over the years,” he says, partly through performing the music he has always loved, but he jokes that it was his second wife, Kelli, who was born a Roman Catholic, who brought him to the ministry.
“In 2005, my wife said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing that?’ ” In 2007, Simmons enrolled as a distance learner at Luther Seminary. The family, which includes the couple’s teenage daughter, relocated to Minnesota in 2008 and Kelli, a nurse, began to work at the University of Minnesota while Simmons finished his degree at Luther.
Simmons reflects that the form of his pastoral work has changed to reflect an increasingly secular world. “I was born in 1959,” he says, “and I have great institutional loyalty to the [church] that shaped me, but so many people are done with religion because its forms and expressions of faith don’t resonate with them. The challenge is to be authentic in our message.”
And that message is one of community. “We exist here for the sake of relationships,” says Simmons.
To learn more about Lydia Place, or to book its meeting space, visit their website www.lydiaplace.com or call 612-859-1134.
When she’s not writing about community news, Judy Woodward spends her time as a reference librarian at the Roseville Library.