Everyone has a story that should be told about themselves, their neighborhood, or someone they know. Occasionally, I set up at a table in a coffee shop and interview people who stop in. Today, I set up at the SugaRush Coffee Shop on University Avenue in St. Paul. Here’s another story:
Erica Hunt had just landed her dream job about a decade ago. She loved being a student teacher of history at Central High School and now she was being offered the job full-time. Her husband had a good job at Bethel University. They were living a comfortable life in the Twin Cities, which is why she turned down the job and why they moved to West Virginia.
“We were feeling comfortable, but restless that we were living in a bubble,” she said. “The real world isn’t this comfortable. So I turned down the job. He left his job.”
They moved with some financial help from family members who may not have quite understood why two people with college degrees would head to a small town of 50 people that time and the coal industry had forgotten.
For two years they worked for a Christian organization in the the town. She held after-school programs for kids, GED classes, and basic computer repair for adults. Her husband fixed up homes in the town.
“We were outsiders,” she said. “The folks, rightfully so, don’t trust outsiders very much there. The relationships were enriching, but it wasn’t like we found real friends. It was a lonely time, too. And we realized we’re city people.”
So after two years and one child, they decided to move back to the Midwest to be close to their family. “We thought, how can we find an environment where we’re still challenged with people who think differently, see the world differently, look differently, just have a very different life? How can we still find that environment here?
“We were very intentional about choosing a neighborhood where we would meet a lot of different people, not just people like us,” she said. “We’re on a corner. You get a lot of people who take the bus walking back and forth to the bus. We’ve met a lot of folks just walking by.”
And yet, she said today, they weren’t really a part of the Frogtown community. They realized people in a community have to work at being people in a community.
“A few years ago we realized that we were living here and our relationships were taking us out to place like White Bear Lake. We found ourselves complaining about not being connected to our neighbors and then realizing we’re not giving them a chance to know us or us a chance to know them. My husband is an extrovert, so he likes to just invite himself over for a beer. He rarely gets turned down. We were just being intentional about being outside and greeting people. It’s been an effort, but not like so hard…. it’s really been rewarding. A little bit goes a long way when you’re genuine. We really care not just about this place, but these people.”
She became a teen pastor at Woodland Hills Church on the Maplewood/St. Paul border.
“We talk a lot about identity,” she says of her teenage charges. “Just know who you are and what makes you a valuable person? Is it that you can fit in that size jeans, or score points in a basketball game? It’s OK to pursue things, but not put so much into that. We talk against individualism, which we think has corrupted the western church. It’s not about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘us’ and serving than being served.