How do you be a good neighbor? A historic church in downtown Fort Wayne is finding out

When Sara Schaefer first heard about a job opening at Trinity English Lutheran Church last fall, she didn’t know what to think about it.

As a former TV news personality in town, she was looking for a way to stay invested in her community and meet people around the city. But she didn’t attend church services at Trinity English, and she’s not Lutheran.

It turns out, these qualifications made her the perfect candidate for the position.

“The staff at Trinity English didn’t want someone who was already involved in the church,” Schaefer says. “They wanted the perspective of someone on the outside.”

Today, she is carving out a niche role for herself as the church’s first Community Development Manager, a job designed to use church resources, volunteers, and services to benefit their neighbors of all religious backgrounds in downtown Fort Wayne.

While the Summit City has long been called the “City of Churches,” the staff at Trinity English is rethinking what this means by taking a different approach to community engagement, Schaefer says.

It starts with reaching out to their immediate neighbors—both old and new—in the downtown area, asking them what they are thinking, wanting, and needing as the city grows.

“As everything is building up around us downtown, we want to be part of it,” Schaefer says. “We’re focusing on the one-mile radius around the church, and how we can connect with these residents to be better neighbors in whatever way it is.”

Schaefer, right, joins Trinity English staff and members of Fort Wayne UNITED in a neighborhood walk.

She explains that while some might assume that the church is seeking to connect with people on a religious level, it’s often more complex than that. Neighbors' needs range from tangible things like food and shelter to intangible emotional support that defies religious boundaries.

“Not everyone is coming here to talk to a pastor about something religious,” she says. “Many times, they’re coming to talk about something emotional.”

Trinity English has had a long history of supporting and connecting with its downtown neighbors. It started hosting “Open Door” hours from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, inviting the public into its sanctuary for personal meditation, a time of peace, or a chance to enjoy its unique architecture.

In the spring of 2018, it also hosted a 10-week public "Dialogue on Race" to promote greater understanding and conversation in the city’s urban core.

It offers general assistance hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, too, where any local residents can meet one-on-one with church staff about their needs for shelter, food, or clothing, Schaefer notes. She sees her new role as an extension of these efforts, meeting people where they are in the community.

“We want to be known as that big church downtown that does things like this,” she says. “We want everyone in Fort Wayne to know about something we do, and if it’s for them, it’s even better—whether it’s a ministry or helping them find housing.”

Schaefer's work often involves volunteering with community service projects.

So far in her new role, she has launched a blog called Downtown Dialogue on the church’s website and put her TV news skills to work, interviewing downtown Fort Wayne business owners on camera to boost their profiles.

In December, she hosted a welcome party for new residents at the Skyline Tower apartments, inviting them to meet and mingle over snacks in their community room.

On the more religious side of things, she’s currently partnering with Trinity’s Head Pastor Gary Erdos to host a series of discussions called “God on Tap” at Hop River Brewing Company.

These discussions are open to people of all religious backgrounds, designed to get young adults of different beliefs talking about theology in a comfortable environment, Schaefer says.

It’s based on a book called Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God by Bryan Berghoef, which was nationally popularized by PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

“It’s basically going back to the idea that church started in a pub, and it’s more of a relaxed environment for people to get together and talk about whatever is on their minds—whether it’s current events or faith,” Schaefer says. “Putting ‘God’ in the title is a risk because we understand a lot of people have been hurt by the church. But we’re focusing on the fact that it’s just an open talk for people of all different religions or no religion, and it’s about people forming relationships.”

Trinity English is located in downtown Fort Wayne at 450 W. Washington Blvd.

This summer, she is helping the church host a block party called Splash into Summer to promote its summer programming, including camps and a family fitness day at Indiana Tech. The event will also highlight Trinity's work hosting HEAL Farm Markets in its downtown parking lot, which are open to the public and help people who have food vouchers access healthy eating options.

As for living out the largely undefined role of a Community Development Manager, Schaefer says it’s less of a science and more of an art.

“We just want to talk to people and listen to people,” she explains. “We’re figuring it out as we go.”

God on Tap

Schaefer and Pastor Erdos host God on Tap at 5:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month at Hop River Brewing Company. Check Trinity English’s Facebook page for details.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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