Strawberry Lake Mennonite Church in Ogema, Minnesota, was established 75 years ago as a mission church on the White Earth Indian Reservation. The diverse congregation of 100 or so swells when summertime guests arrive to this lake country. Today’s congregation remains focused on the needs of its neighbors and community as they build an event center on adjacent land.
“Families have gathered, worshipped, and grown together here,” says member Pat Swiers. “One thing that’s been enjoyed together is a small basketball court outside the church building. A lot of community folks bring their families. That sparked the idea to build something for our church and community that would be faith-based, multi-use and year-around.”
An indoor venue is vital during northern Minnesota’s harsh winters. The planned 52-foot by 82-foot building has 20-foot sidewalls to accommodate an indoor basketball court and multipurpose area. A third of the building will have bathrooms and a kitchen, with a large upper-level meeting room.
“We want this to be a gathering place for anyone who is part of the community at any time,” Swiers says. “The emphasis will be on the fact that it’s for the community, and a goal is to have it perceived that way.”
Initial fundraising by the church has been transferred to a newly formed nonprofit, Connections 34, named for the highway alongside the church and event center.
“This is a remote area; there are not a lot of places for anyone to go,” says Eden Baer, treasurer of Connections 34, whose board includes individuals from both the church and the community. “Connections 34 has a 50-year lease on the property.”
According to Swiers, excitement within the Native American community is growing as they realize they can meet here with freedom to share their Christian faith, something that is becoming more restricted on the reservation.
One of Swiers’ Native American friends says, “Our neighbors are in need of a place to gather that will allow unity in the body of Christ.”
For Strawberry Lake’s bi-vocational pastor, Justin Swiers, son of Pat Swiers, the event center provides a new way to spread the same message.
“This project means a new way to make the community feel comfortable with us and let them be part of our lives as we try to be part of their lives,” Justin Swiers says. “Our hope is that this project will be an encouragement for people to interact in a new way with the church, and that it will connect us in ways we didn’t even expect.”
The C34 Mission Statement says it well: “A faith-based community outreach that seeks to glorify the Lord in service to others while focusing on building meaningful relationships.”
Property arrangements are final, tree removal and initial dirt work is complete and a website is being established.
Arrangements have been made with MB Foundation to receive donations for the project (www.mbfoundation.com/givetoconnections34).
Elaine McAlister is an award-winning writer, author, blogger and columnist who lives in Hilllsboro, Kansas. Her special interest is discovering and sharing resources with other grandparents, empowering them to intentionally create memories and build relationships with their grandchildren.