From Frogtown to Godtown

| Bridget Ryder for The Catholic Spirit | June 18, 2015 | 2 Comments

Evangelization efforts help transform St. Paul community

Vivian Clebs, left, invites a woman to St. Vincent de Paul’s Hmong Summer Festival. Clebs led a group of parishioners June 10 on their first experience as evangelists. Bridget Ryder/For The Catholic Spirit

Vivian Clebs, left, invites a woman to St. Vincent de Paul’s Hmong Summer Festival. Clebs led a group of parishioners June 10 on their first experience as evangelists. Bridget Ryder/For The Catholic Spirit

Geu Vu and Khmasy Yang stood over two vats of boiling oil under a tent in the parking lot of St. Vincent de Paul Church in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood June 13. The two men were frying the spring rolls women of the parish had been filling all morning. Just after 3 p.m., the first pans of food came out for the party. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Hmong parish had invited their neighbors for a Hmong Summer Festival.

One of the first guests to arrive was Becky Dzlubak.

“They [parishioners] came to the door, and we thought we’d come out and bring the kids,” she said.

Dzlubak, her two Marquis Beasley and Malik Davenport, and her partner, Mark Beasley, made the rounds of the free activities — a dozen carnival-style mini challenges from basketball to a duck pond. There was elaborate face painting and hair coloring, too.

Parishioners had been going door to door in the days before the festival as part of a mission in conjunction with Godtown, a revitalization and evangelization effort in Frogtown started by John Tolo, who attends Mass at St. Vincent de Paul, formally a campus of the Cathedral of St. Paul after a 2012 merger.

On the evening of June 10, parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul and members of Godtown gathered for an hour of eucharistic adoration and dinner. Then, Tolo explained the evening’s outreach. In groups of four to five, they would go door to door on the blocks surrounding the church, invite people to the festival on Saturday and ask if they had anything they would like them to pray for.

“When you’re sharing your faith, you’re sharing good news,” Tolo explained. “We’re going to go to our neighbors and say, ‘We’re having a party for you. Wouldn’t you like to come?’”

Vivian Clebs, a veteran in street evangelization who has worked with Tolo for years, led a group of St. Vincent parishioners on their first experience as evangelists. At the first house, parishioner Eric Ly spoke in Hmong to a woman who happily accepted the flier. A few houses later, a young mother in a backyard full of children took the flier with interest and asked for prayers for a good summer for the children. With heads bowed, Clebs offered a brief, spontaneous prayer.

Father Michael Becker and John Tolo attend the Hmong Summer Festival hosted by St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul. Father Becker and Tolo have led its evangelization efforts in the Frogtown neighborhood. Bridget Ryder/For The Catholic Spirit

Father Michael Becker and John Tolo attend the Hmong Summer Festival hosted by St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul. Father Becker and Tolo have led its evangelization efforts in the Frogtown neighborhood. Bridget Ryder/For The Catholic Spirit

From Dinkytown to Frogtown

John and Jen Tolo and their three children moved into the heart of Frogtown in 2011 after running a successful mission coffee shop in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown called Hotspot. Seeking college students, Tolo and other volunteers would hit the streets and invite people in for free coffee. The shop functioned as a safe, sober refuge for young adults where they could also learn about Christ. One day a woman came into the café and told Tolo he should start a coffee shop in Frogtown because the gangs and drug dealers ran out every other Christian group that had tried to work in the neighborhood.

“I felt like if we lived like God wanted us to live, there could be visible evidence of transformation,” Tolo said.

Tolo wanted to change the neighborhood from Frogtown to Godtown, the name he gave his new mission. Tolo and his wife bought an abandoned house on Charles Street that had been used for drug dealing. Tolo rounded up volunteers to help make the house habitable again and found donations for construction materials. Seeing a joyful group of volunteers working together in a place that once harbored crime was already a spark in the neighborhood.

“When people walk by this house they are already seeing evidence of visible transformation,” Tolo said.

Tolo also started a community garden in an empty lot nearby. The lot belongs to the city, leased to Tolo for $1 a year. Within a year, the community formed around growing vegetables had ransformed the crime-ridden, half empty complex into a safe community with a waiting list.

Tolo then took to the streets. He had mapped out a 55-block area, and he and other volunteers walked through it praying, blessing each house, picking up trash and talking to neighbors.

“Part of the focus is how can we be relevant to people that have no connection with the Church?” Tolo said. “We try to find a variety of ways to initiate a conversation and look for ways to pray for people.”

One of the best ways has been delivering groceries. Godtown gets regular donations from Lund’s and Byerly’s and Kowalski’s that they distribute in the neighborhood.

“It’s amazing when you say you’re bringing groceries, everything comes out,” Tolo said. “When we have a problem, it’s actually an opportunity to get Jesus involved.”

This is at the heart of Tolo’s understanding of his apostolate.

“The role of the Church is to confront these issues,” Tolo said of the problems facing Frogtown —poverty, drugs, broken families, violence and sex trafficking. Tolo said the Church bringing the Gospel and the grace of God is what makes his efforts in Frogtown work.

Seeing the transformation

Since 2011, Godtown’s ministry in Frogtown has grown. Other families and young adults have joined Tolo and his family on Charles Street and the nearby blocks. Today, Godtown consists of five single-family rehabilitated homes — two for male missionaries, one for female missionaries, a home for single-mother families with a youth center, and a former bar that will headquarter a crime reduction project called SafeCity. A model that, according to Tolo, has worked in other communities, the initiative identifies criminal offenders and seeks to address their needs, from addiction to housing. The City of St. Paul also is partnering with SafeCity.

Tolo has also helped 20 women in Frogtown escape from sex trafficking, he said.

As part of its community outreach, Godtown also hosts events, like a street party June 12, a day before the festival. Troy Williams, 53, came with his cousin, Robin Black, and her five young children. Williams has lived in Frogtown since he was 14.

“It has improved a lot,” he said of the neighborhood over the last few years. “What I’m most grateful for is that safe house they have over there for the children.”

That safe house is the Godtown house first renovated by Tolo.

Jeff Cavins, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, and longtime friend of Tolo, said what Tolo is doing is fruitful on a number of fronts.

“One, he’s taking the Gospel seriously and going out among the poor, attending not just to physical needs; he’s mixing it with the Gospel, and he’s telling them why he’s doing it — the love of God,” Cavins said.

“[Tolo] has a very big ecumenical heart,” said Father Michael Becker, rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul. “His deepest desire is to see Christians united, and he rejoices at success in every denomination.”

It was Father Becker who connected Tolo with St. Vincent de Paul. Father Becker, who frequently celebrates Mass at the church, joined Godtown in street evangelization last summer and was impressed with the Hmong people he met while knocking on doors. He learned from parishioner Peter Ly that the parish had only one Sunday Mass and no parish activities during the week. Father Becker thought priests from St. John Vianney could help with the pastoral ministry. As part of the effort, last winter he asked Tolo to host a program that connects basic Christian teaching with daily living. Then Tolo suggested the summer festival and outreach.

Ly, a longtime parishioner, saw the parish grow thanks in part to Tolo’s efforts.

“What I’ve seen is revitalization for the parish, a sense of joy and purpose coming in,” he said. “Outreach is new and scary, but it’s a good reminder for us why we’re here, why we’re Christian.”

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  • Steven Uggen

    this is awesome.

  • DebraBrunsberg

    Praise God and thanks to all who work so hard to bring others to Him.