DISPATCHES: St. Michael-Albertville Church Marks Five Years in Faith
Hoping to offer a more "inclusive" environment, Jeremiah Curran and a few friends started Westbridge Community Church five years ago. Today, it's one of the most vibrant faith communities in a predominantly Catholic town.
St. Michael is a community build, quite literally, on faith.
A German settlement, the town built its landmark cathedral prior to the turn of the 20th Century, and it has stood at the heart of the city to this very day.
In the shadow of that same, historic structure, Jeremiah and Cheir Curran and a few friends decided five years ago to begin their journey to establish a new faith community here, meeting in a small room at the St. Michael-Albertville Community Education Center.
"We had a few 'preview' services there," Jeremiah, the son of a minister who graduated from high school in Buffalo, recalled. "I remember, I think we maxed out at 47 people. We had six couples who really met together, thought about doing this and got it off the ground. The rest were friends, family and a few kids. I think our first nursery was just to let the kids play out in the hallway."
The six founding couples–the Currans, Ryan and Joanna Mickelson, Nata and Sara Swenson, Chirs and Jen Hickle, Bruce and Linda Schoenberger and Jeremy and Mindy Johnson–had no idea if their little church would grow any larger.
But they gave it a shot.
Westbridge Community Church made its first official appearance a few weeks later, the day of the 2007 Super Bowl. More than 100 people attended the service, which was held at the former Cinemagic Theater.
"We had a mission that we wanted to make it easy for everyone to find and follow Jesus Christ," Curran said. "Really, Westbridge created a place where the average person can explore his faith at his own pace. You don't have to act a certain way. And if you don't agree with the message one week, you shouldn't be outcast."
It wasn't an easy task in a community deeply rooted in Catholicism. But with an influx of new families in the 2000's, change came to this community.
"I think we're in a place that is definitely more diverse," said Marcia Ziegler, former superintendent of St. Michael-Albertville schools. "Diversity here used to mean you weren't Catholic. Now, we have people of different faiths, different races and from different countries here. There is real diversity here now."
In that sense, Curran's timing was perfect. Westbridge came at a time when people were looking for a community of acceptance. That's what his non-denominational church could offer.
"We had to get some people past the pre-conceived notions of what a non-denominational church is all about. We have great churches here. This is an amazing faith community. But there was really nothing for pepole who came from a non-denominational background, perhaps somewhere else closer to the Twin Cities," Curran said.
Through its five year history, Westbridge has had five different homes. After outgrowing the theater space, Westbridge contacted the school district and Ziegler, hoping to use a local gym. Big Woods was open, and the church moved there in 2008.
Soon, it was too large for the elementary school, so Westbridge headed up to Middle School East. Last year, with a different church leaving Middle School West, Curran and his fellow church leaders jumped at the chance to take over in that space, because of the extra gymnasium.
"The old high school has so much room I can see us being there for quite a while, until we're in a position to look at building our own space," Curran said. "Now, we have eight different areas for kids. We had 720 people at our service last week alone, and we've been growing."
The church, like the community, is young. The last "census" showed 39 percent of church attendees were fifth-graders or younger.
In it history, Curran said the church has stayed true to a few different things to make it unique. First, the belief that you should be able to "come to church as you are" has been a pillar.
"People are going to be judged for any multitue of things. You shouldn't be judged by what you're wearing. This is as laid back as it gets. You don't have to pretend you're something your not, and that really resonates with people," Curran said. "We want to be serious about faith, but people can truly come as they are."
Two, church should be loud.
"We like our music," Curran said with a smile. "We wanted the opening of church to be rocking."
And it does, thanks to "Headlight" band member Jorge, who has taken over the music.
Finally, the Sunday's teaching should be something that people can put into practice each week.
"You should be able to walk out of church on Sunday felling that you learned something you can use in your life during the week. If you can't use it on Monday, we shouldn't teach it on Sunday," Curran said.
With a goal of reaching 1,000 members soon, Curran said he's looking forward to the next five years of faith.
"I think for a lot of people, we've connected with something that they want to know," Curran said. "It's a style that really fits us. And it's fitting well with the people who get to know us."