Minneapolis civic leaders unite to give community relief

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Over a decade ago, a local pastor and a social worker in downtown Minneapolis began meeting regularly with the foreknowledge that one day, their organizations might need each other.

Dr. Billy Russell, from Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, and John Sather, of CityJoy, began as strangers and slowly became friends who could laugh and cry with one another, sharing not only their personal joys and hardships but those of their community as well.

Greater Friendship, housing a predominately Black congregation, and CityJoy, a service arm of the predominately White-attended Bethlehem Baptist Church, provide an example of multiracial leadership rooted in a dedication to one another.

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Russell described building trust with Sather through “real, respectful conversation.” He added that to establish a rapport, Sather had to “really listen to me and respect what I’m saying; hurt with me and understand what I’ve been through.”

Nick Stromwall and Ming-Jing Tong, co-founders of Support the Cities in Minneapolis. Tong is also part of CityJoy.

Nick Stromwall and Ming-Jing Tong, co-founders of Support the Cities in Minneapolis. Tong is also part of CityJoy. (Support the Cities)

Sather did just that and began to confide in Russell on matters in which he had not even consulted members of his own church.

For Sather and Russell, strong relationships are the mechanisms for lasting change.

“Systems are built by people, and the more we get to know each other, the more we influence those decisions,” Russell continued.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut many businesses down indefinitely and protests disrupted the peace, the two joined forces to influence the direction of their community.

Greater Friendship and CityJoy organized a food distribution center, aiding families plagued by layoffs and boarded-up or burned-down grocery stores by offering supplies ranging from produce to paper towels. Open to the public each week, over 800 local families have benefited from the donations over the past month.

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The distribution is just a piece of a larger effort to mobilize the community to serve through CityJoy’s website, which has already seen over 8,000 volunteers. The site allows anyone to sign up and help in whatever capacity needed, doing everything from cleaning debris off the streets to unloading trucks of donated food.

“[It’s] not the check that makes the difference…it’s the relationship,” Sather told Fox News.

Volunteers give out food and essentials in Minneapolis.

Volunteers give out food and essentials in Minneapolis. (City of Joy)

This reconciliatory work is precisely what Russell and Sather hope to stimulate within the area, meeting immediate needs first, then bringing people together, and advocating for lasting change.

“It may start with a hotdog…and end with a petition, said Charvez Russell, son of Dr. Billy Russell and a leader at Greater Friendship.

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With food distribution waning as stores reopen, Greater Friendship and CityJoy plan to continue the momentum of involvement by offering more opportunities to serve the Minneapolis area.

They will also introduce platforms for discussion and listening-based forums for members of the surrounding area where George Floyd died, with the goal of discovering solutions to long-term issues caused by racial and economic divides.

“Movements need leaders,” one Bethlehem Baptist pastor remarked at a recent dedication service between the two churches.

Earlier this month, the same pastor contracted the construction of a white, wooden pulpit replicating the one Martin Luther King Jr. used to deliver his March on Washington speech in 1963.

After the Rev. Al Sharpton issued remarks from the pulpit at a memorial service dedicated to Floyd, it was formally gifted to Greater Friendship. It now sits adjacent to the altar where Russell preaches to his congregation.

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Russell noted that it can be difficult to know how different cultures view each other at times, but in light of the recent teamwork between CityJoy, Greater Friendship, and the thousands of volunteers, “now we know they really care,” he said.

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