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All Peoples Church: True to its Name

by Peggy Schulz 

A day before President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, All Peoples Church, at the corner of West Clarke and North 2nd Streets, held an afternoon of activities to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In a way no one could have foreseen, the positive, inclusive, energizing vibe present in the church that Sunday acted as a preview of the president’s inauguration speech the following day, especially foreshadowing Obama’s assertion that “America’s possibilities are limitless.”

The Martin Luther King, Jr. event at All Peoples Church also served as an introduction to and summary of the church’s vision to be a gathering point for all the people in the community, to be a meaningful presence not just in their faith, but also in their day-to-day lives in urban Milwaukee. It started out with a showing of the documentary film, “The Promise of America,” directed by local filmmaker Janet Fitch, which focuses on the Million Mom March on Washington, D.C. in 2000, shortly after the killings at Columbine High School. In the film, former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan brought things into focus by saying, “What the people want is simple. They want an America as good as its promise.”

In many ways, All Peoples Church also tries to be as good as its promise. All Peoples addresses concerns of food security or personal safety, including gun violence. In its formal programming and through the overall, everyday approach of its staff members and volunteers, deals with the wide variety of issues its members bring through the church doors on a daily basis.

Gun violence is a compelling, very current topic at All Peoples Church in part because of its location in the midst of an urban neighborhood, but even more so since the death last year of Darius Simmons, the 13-year-old boy shot and killed by his neighbor, allegedly over an issue with the neighbor’s shotguns. Darius and his brother both were active members of All Peoples, including working in the gardens. The parish maintains a close relationship with the family and is an active voice in the community dialogue about how to reduce gun violence in our neighborhoods.

FREE School: A Growth Opportunity for All People

All Peoples Church is led by Pastor Steve Jerbi. Marked by commitment and enthusiasm, Pastor Jerbi refers to himself as an “Eco Pastor.” The church as a whole, with Jerbi’s guidance, leads its members – and anyone wanting to participate in its programs – in becoming responsible citizens, living sustainable lifestyles.

Beginning in February, the FREE School program will be an excellent example of how the church both meets its members’ needs and sometimes even educates them about needs they didn’t realize they had!

The “Food Responsibility through Education and Employment” program grows out of the church’s work on food justice, Jerbi says. “In addition to providing food, as a church, we have been providing training opportunities, including ‘Grow Your Own Groceries’ workshops,” Jerbi says. Church members are busy building a greenhouse on the site, so “groceries” can be grown year-round. All Peoples also has started a partnership with Growing Power, Jerbi says, so there are hoop houses on their community garden lot as well.

“Based on some of what we’re already doing, a bunch of folks have said, ‘This isn’t just a side project, this is a strategy for ministry,’” Jerbi says.

Pastor Jerbi helped parishioners connect with Alice’s Garden, and some of the work they’re doing in their garden and also on some farmland just outside of town. Another program involves work with Redeemer Lutheran Church on Wisconsin Avenue. That parish is looking to put a restaurant in their sanctuary that would remain still a sanctuary for worship, but also be a training ground for folks trying to get into food service. All People’s is looking to take the youth development part of such a training program and translate that into livable jobs for adults.

“That’s just a little bit of how we’ve been working together,” Jerbi says, in offering some background for the formation of FREE School. “Because we want to cultivate a sense of food justice, both within our congregation and throughout the community, we’re now offering FREE School in February, in four thematic areas.”

Those four tracks are:

1) Let’s Explore Food in Milwaukee! The food landscape in Milwaukee, what’s happening, who’s involved.

2) Community Gardening. How to start a community garden.

3) Ready, Set, Teach! How to include food justice in education, both in formal education with a curriculum, but also in Sunday school and other activities within churches and other organizations.

4) Food and Spirituality. A track addressing the many links between food and the spiritual life – from miracles like feeding the multitudes with the loaves and fishes or turning water into wine to present day discussions of scarcity and abundance.

All four areas are open to anyone interested, but primarily focus on adults. It’s a four-week class, and extremely affordable at $10 for the entire four weeks. “So, we’re going to tap in to some really great educators for the classes,” Jerbi says, “and we’re looking to literally cultivate this conversation, which is everywhere in Milwaukee, but not always present in the congregation.”

FREE School runs for four weeks on Tuesdays, February 5, 12, 19 and 26, from 6 to 8PM, at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 2812 W. Wisconsin Avenue. To register for FREE School, visit the All Peoples website at allpeoplesgathering.org/soul-food

The ‘Eco Pastor’

Jerbi has been with All Peoples Church for five and a half years. He is the second minister to serve as its pastor since the church was established in 1991.

“When looking at who the church would serve,” Jerbi says, “the aim was to be intentionally rooted in our community.” A new congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, it is housed in the former Epiphany Lutheran Church, which was built in 1905-’06. Some of the members of Epiphany Lutheran worked in the group of founding members for All Peoples Church.

Jerbi says that a passage from Isaiah 56:7 served as a guide for both the naming and the formation of All Peoples: “. . . for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” That meant that the church, in its formative years and going forward, needed to reach out to the African-American, Puerto Rican and Anglo communities in the neighborhood.

All Peoples really means ALL people, Jerbi says. “We’re multi-cultural, racial, class and age,” he says. “Half our church is under the age of 25; we skew very young.”

Jerbi notes the parish welcomes both gay and straight members. “That’s part of our diversity. We have folks who slept last night in the park sitting next to lawyers making six figures.” There are some clear aspects of the character of the church, Jerbi says, and youth is a big part of it. “Also, that we are a church led by people in poverty. About 70% of the surrounding community is living in poverty,” Jerbi says.

For Jerbi, this is his first time serving as a pastor of a congregation. He grew up in northern Illinois and worked as a camp director for a few years before attending seminary in Chicago. The structure at the seminary was to complete two years of classes, then a 12-month internship “wherever they sent you,” Jerbi says, followed by one final year of classes. During his internship period Jerbi worked at a central city congregation in Minneapolis and another one in St. Paul, Minnesota.

His first calling in Milwaukee, after the seminary, was to a church at 70th and Hampton. “Then I got into the congregation,” Jerbi says, “and pretty quickly realized they couldn’t afford to pay a full-time pastor. The former bishop and some folks at All Peoples worked to get me out of that church.” All Peoples was interviewing for a pastor at that time, and Jerbi personally, and his approach to the unique challenges of a multi-cultural congregation, were found to be a great fit.

In part by developing programs such as FREE School Jerbi has helped All Peoples Church present those “limitless possibilities” that President Obama talked about to its immediate community here in Milwaukee.

In addition to being a strong voice against gun violence and working to support Darius Simmons’ family, All Peoples Church is involved in a number of other program areas in addition to FREE School: a food pantry, which is part of its Wednesday ministry, including a free meal for the community; the community garden, which includes a youth program, with people from eight to 16 years of age being employed to work in the garden; and Theology on Tap, a program at 7PM. on the third Monday of each month at the Public House in Riverwest, led by Pastor Jerbi.

Learn More:

All Peoples Church   2600 N 2nd St  414.264.1616   allpeoplesgathering.org

Sunday Worship: 9AM Encounter Worship  11AM Powerhouse Worship