By Emily Duma
There have been few times that my toes have been colder than they usually are around 6:15pm on Thursdays and Fridays. That’s generally the time that I get back from the Amen Corner, after 2 hours of neighbor-meeting, soup sharing, and listening.
Ruthie, Joe, Seth and I have spent the last several weeks cooking soup for a Ventura Village Neighborhood Initiative called the Amen Corner. The Amen Corner has run every Thursday and Friday at Peavey Park’s “Thrones Plaza” since July. It has created a space for many to express what is on their hearts and minds, a safe place for gathering, exchanging ideas and opinions, venting frustration, expressing joys and fears, and discovering and building community. It was originally a reaction – police had decided that the corner of Chicago and Franklin (just 3 blocks from our little Rye House) was a hotbed of crime and drugs, and were going to “fix” the problem through increase patrolling and installation of massive spotlights. However, for many people in our neighborhood, increased policing does not mean increased safety, and therefore a diverse group of neighbors (all sizes and colors and ages) came together to create a different solution.
They decided to rely on the community to create the change. The name “Amen Corner” is not linked to religion, but instead is a reference to a James Baldwin play and the African American spiritual tradition to yell “AMEN!” whenever you hear something that particularly resonates with who you are and where you are at. Setting up a microphone, speakers and a grill, a small but dedicated group of volunteers created a intentional space and time for sharing stories and food, and yelling “Amen!” in celebration every time something worth supporting or working towards was said.
The response was remarkable. In the first 17 weeks alone, 258 people signed up for follow-up involvement in the neighborhood, and it was estimated that over 2000 people were affected. Even more, you can feel the difference in the corner. What was once a collection of bus stops and transient passers-by has now been reclaimed by the community. Kids climb on the mosaic’d chairs surrounding the stage area, clearly comfortable (as they should be!) in their park space. Even the Minneapolis Police force was impressed – since the Amen Corner project began, crime at Peavy Park has been the lowest in twenty years.
I was introduced to the project by our dear friend and near-constant dinner guest Jason Rodney, a fantastically dedicated Phillips neighborhood resident who has been involved with the project since the beginning. He invited me to stop by one day when volunteers were low, and after hearing neighbors share songs, stories, revelations, poetry, and even a particularly insightful greeting card, I was hooked. I started going every Thursday and Friday and attending planning meetings, but it was Joey who really came up with the idea of real Rye House involvement.
For the first 17 week, hotdogs were grilled and served up with juice and chips – a definite draw for some passers by. Now that it was getting cold, hotdogs weren’t going to be as fitting. We as a house have always talked about doing community dinners, and what better place to do them then alongside this homegrown safety initiative? Starting in mid-November, we were the official cooks of the Amen Corner.
Generally, this meant coffee, cocoa, bread and massive pots of soup – we cooked for 40 every Thursday and Friday, and consistently served close to that. From Baked Potato Stew to Curried Sweet Potato and Lentil (our favorite – recipe below), to Three-Bean Chili and French Onion, our soup was always vegetarian and as locally sourced as possible. We tried to make the soup meet our ethic without compromising general likeability. And I think we succeeded – people gave complements in exchange for seconds.
However, it seems strange to talk about the Amen Corner in terms of what we gave, because what’s’ transformative about this project is how much you can receive in just 2 hours. Some folks show up with thoughts or things to give, and other folks come with needs to be filled. The Amen Corner is a literal point in the community where people can connect and ask, “What do you need that I might have?” or “Here’s what I need; do any of you have that?” The Amen Corner allowed me to meet my neighbors, to learn how to talk to people whose experiences were radically different than mine, to find common ground, and to learn to relish in the things we don’t share. It helped me feel comfortable walking around my neighborhood, and introduced me to friends who are grandfathers and grandkids, friends who have lived here their whole lives and others who are recent transplants like me.
Ultimately, I see the Amen Corner as being about recovery. Although not always stated so simply, almost everyone who came was recovering from something. Whether it was from substance abuse, a disconnection to one’s neighbors or a deep need to ask for or share something on our hearts and minds, so many of us found personal rehabilitation (and the relationships to sustain it) on Thursdays and Fridays. I certainly did. However, even more than that, I see the Amen Corner’s effect as going beyond that. Phillips is a NEIGHBORHOOD in recovery – recovery from history, from violence, from drugs, and from an overwhelming lack of power to make change in our community. Together, we have the solutions for all these, but it is only through open, honest sharing and a whole, healed community that we will be able to get there. The Amen Corner is one small, but significant step in the right direction, and it has been an honor to be a part of it.
So, if you’re ever in Minneapolis on a Thursday or Friday from 4-6, feel free to stop by. We’d love to slop you up a cup of soup and hear what you have to say. And if you’ve got a great soup recipe that you want to pass on, please send it! We’re always looking for new ideas to fill bellies. Amen to all you lovely readers – thanks for listening.