Seminary students ‘take it to the streets’
Sioux Falls Seminary serves up the love of Jesus Christ firsthand and daily with Summit House’s inner-city service from graduate students.
Michelle and Aaron Van’t Hul live in the Summit House, located just across the street from a mini-strip mall, which represents the ethnic diversity in the neighborhood and the outreach to the neighborhood that involves all of the Summit House residents.
Christy Alten-Osmera / The Digital Butterfly
The wail of a nearby police siren abruptly pierces the late afternoon din of business as usual at a mini-strip mall in the Pettigrew Heights neighborhood, on the edge of downtown Sioux Falls, S.D.
Heads turn, and then go back to their business as usual.
A short distance away, sounds of laughter and chatter are heard. A diverse group of local residents -- black, brown and white -- are enjoying a neighborhood barbecue hosted by a curious group of residents of a small dormitory-style apartment unit called Summit House.
Even more curious, these nine residents are seminary graduate students who are committed to living in and serving the neighborhood known to be one of the most ethnically diverse but financially strapped and crime-challenged in South Dakota.
A calling to provide hope
According to Pastor Kevin Skogstad, 46, a Sioux Falls Seminary Master of Divinity graduate and director of operations for Summit House, the spirit of the home and its graduate student residents follow principles of Christian Community Development, where individuals -- in this case preparing for a life of Christian service -- relocate to live among the poor and share their struggles.
Summit House -- formerly a home for young, unwed mothers and later for troubled youth -- was purchased in May 2008 by the Sioux Falls Seminary. Formerly known as North American Baptist Seminary, the institution is affiliated with the North American Baptist Conference and operates with cooperation and support from several other local church denominations and faith-based organizations.
Located in what Skogstad described as one of the toughest areas of Sioux Falls in terms of poverty, crime and living conditions, Summit House had physically deteriorated much the same as its neighborhood and its renovation has been a continual project for him and the other residents.
According to Skogstad, the nine residents receive reduced rent plus two academic credits toward their graduate degrees or other seminary programs. In return, they provide at least five hours of service each week to organizations of their choice that serve the Pettigrew Heights residents. Whatever their choice of volunteer work, it demands sincere effort and sacrifice as these students serve their neighbors and also maintain the Summit House property.
“There has to be a desire within themselves to work with lower-income people,” Skogstad said, “to work with people underserved, to seek righteousness and justice for them.”
Examples of some of the hands-on work opportunities for Summit House residents have been supervising after-school programs for at-risk youth, sponsoring a weekly neighborhood sports night, neighborhood beautification work, free weekly dinners, urban gardening and prayer groups -- all following the four core values of Summit House: service, hospitality, community and creation care.
“Presenting a living and active Jesus”
Pastor Aaron Van’t Hul’s introduction to Summit House was a tour of the newly purchased, run-down building and an experience unlike any he ever had or dreamed he would have.
Shortly after the purchase of Summit House, Dr. Jay Moon, professor of intercultural studies and an organizer of the Summit House program, was holding a prayer group in the building and offering a tour for the group in the fall of 2007.
Unmarried and a Master of Divinity student at the time, Van’t Hul, 32, was the last of the touring students to leave a particular vacant apartment that was intended only for married students.
“I heard this voice from up in the rafters, and it said, ‘This is your room,’” Van’t Hul said. “I mean it was clear as a bell, I heard it.”
Not seeing anyone else in the room, he accepted this immediately as a word of direction from the Lord, noting that he later realized that if this was to be his room, he needed to begin dating and to get married. Several months later, Van’t Hul met and dated another student named Michelle, married her in February 2009 and they moved immediately into the Summit House – into the same room where he had heard the calling.
Since then, Van’t Hul has graduated and taken on full-time work at the Center of Hope in downtown Sioux Falls, serving as director of the Bike-to-Work ministry and co-pastoring a non-denominational church -- called Restore 2 Life -- through the Sioux Falls Ministry Center.
Van’t Hul’s wife, Michelle, 30, will graduate with a Master of Arts degree in Christian leadership in spring 2013 and has treasured the couple’s time in the diversity of the Pettigrew Heights neighborhood.
“I love learning about the different cultures,” Michelle said, referring to the variety of ethnicities represented within blocks around the Summit House, including Native American, Hispanic, Sudanese, Indian and Vietnamese. “I like learning from people of other cultures – how they view even some of the things North Americans do, compared to their culture.”
“People are coming to us. We get to minister to people from all parts of the world,” Aaron added.
The service and assistance provided by the Summit House residents have proven to be door-openers to conversations involving faith. Aaron has witnessed on many occasions to people seeking to learn more about Christ and the gift of Salvation.
“They were never taught that there’s a Jesus that’s living and wants to speak to them and to love them – that there is a spiritual realm,” he said, alluding to a tendency for people to recognize what they would call bad spirits in the world. “And that gives (us) an opportunity to talk … if there are bad spirits, there’s a good one, too. We want to present a living and active Jesus.”
Building acceptance and trust through deeds
Reaching the local population is a process that must take place over time, as trust builds slowly and surely, according to Skogstad and the Van’t Huls.
“I do more things in deed than in word, I’m guessing. Connecting both … it takes a lot of time,” Aaron said.
“It’s getting closer,” Michelle said. “The longer we’re here, the more people understand we’re here to just be in the neighborhood and to love the people who live here.”
After they tell people they live at the Summit House, “People may realize the Christian connection,” she added.
An effective opener for conversation has been the residents’ efforts toward urban gardening. They plant varieties of vegetables and apple trees, fertilize with compost and water the gardens using collected rainwater and water from the sump pump.
“That’s a witness in itself,” Aaron said. “People watch and know there’s something different about (the house residents)” as questions lead to conversations about God’s creation and work.
It’s dark now, and sirens still blare periodically, and heads still turn. Yet it’s been another day where residents of an area previously low in hope know that there is a source of love and caring that lives and shares among them, helping to achieve dreams of a better life for their loved ones.
And the small group of seminary students returns to their home on Summit Avenue, knowing they’ve made yet another difference in lives, following the steps of Jesus.
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
FOR MORE INFORMATION OR SUPPORT FOR CONTINUED RESTORATION:
Jason Klein or Jay Moon – 605-336-6588