On May 26 Colin Kirkpatrick of Pinewood was found dead on the farm of the Rev. Bob and Carol Kelly. Randy Grubich has been charged with murder. Both victim and accused murderer are people who have been befriended by Pastor Kelly, who serves as a mission development pastor for Peoples Church, a congregation in development of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We'd like to comment on this tragedy, its effect on Pastor Bob and Carol, and possible ramifications for Peoples Church.
We realize that Peoples Church and its special mission outreach to all people, especially people living in poverty, has occasionally received criticism from some folks in the Bemidji community. While this is not a perfect church (anymore than any church can claim to be perfect) it carries out a vital ministry among people who often are not comfortable in other churches.
In recent months Peoples Church has had a difficult time receiving variances for improvements and a proposed addition to its building from the Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board. The proposed building improvements would help Peoples Church conduct a ministry that benefits needy residents of the Bemidji area in a safer, healthier manner. Because it would be most unfortunate if the tragedy on the Kelly place might raise additional concerns about the proposed enhancements to the Peoples Church building, we write this to indicate our continuing strong support for Pastor Kelly and the ministry of Peoples Church.
Now, a couple thoughts about the tragedy on the Kelly place. Of course, this is a deeply sad and complex tragedy -- layers upon layers of grief in all of this. It has shaken Pastor Bob and Carol Kelly and others affiliated with Peoples Church. However, we need to remember that such things can happen whenever people try to help out the poorest, most marginalized among us, in the name of Jesus. The Kellys -- and Peoples Church -- have been dealing for years with people living marginalized lives -- lives unfortunately all too familiar with tragedy.
So, we hope that folks in the Bemidji area will not be too quick to assume that this tragedy reflects negatively on Peoples Church. The struggle that Peoples Church has entered is a struggle against hopelessness and despair -- against poverty, violence, darkness and oppression. It is a battle against great odds and often with little encouragement and support. While Pastor Kelly and Peoples Church seek to carry out this ministry with concern for people's safety, this is a ministry to and with very vulnerable people. We may be tempted to shun people who are perceived as "too difficult to love," but that would mean ignoring Jesus' invitation to "take up your cross and follow me."
The community of Jesus, when it is truest to its central purpose, does not shirk the lost, the last and the least. Pastor Bob and Carol Kelly have been guided by this vision -- at Peoples Church, but also in their own lives as disciples (including their decision to provide shelter to homeless folks on their own private property). Sometimes, in the midst of doing this basic, frontline ministry...tragedies will happen.
Peoples Church is the Northwestern Minnesota Synod's foremost ministry partner in serving people in poverty. It's as simple as that. Peoples Church does as well as any such ministry we have observed, both in ministering to folks living "on the edge" and in calling forth their own unique gifts for ministry.
In addition to the reasons cited above, we stand in support of Peoples Church for several other reasons:
- Peoples Church places Christian worship at the heart of all its ministries.
- Peoples Church ministers to the whole person -- body, mind, spirit, culture, economic life, etc.
- Peoples Church has attracted a wide variety of ministry partners -- both individuals and congregations, within and beyond the ELCA in northern Minnesota.
We invite the public to join us, the Kellys and the folks of Peoples Church for a time of prayer, reflection and conversation regarding the ministry of Peoples Church 4-6 p.m. on Sunday at Peoples Church, 824 America Ave. In light of the recent tragedy, along with continuing efforts to enhance their building, this is a critical time to keep proclaiming the strong Christian hope for which Peoples Church exists. Please come! All are welcome!
Lawrence Wohlrabe is bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Steve Peterson is assistant to the bishop and the Rev Keith Zeh is ELCA director for evangelical mission in the Northwestern Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota synods.