To Edrin Williams, pastoring sometimes means firing up the barbecue grills, giving out groceries, and working every day to serve his neighbors. As Senior Pastor of Sanctuary Covenant, an intentionally multiethnic church on the corner of Broadway and Lyndale in North Minneapolis, he is devoted to tangible community development grounded in a theological commitment to loving your neighbor. We sat down with Edrin to chat about community, the role of the church, and creating a space for people to gather.
March 22, 2022
What does it mean to you to be a pastor?
I feel like my calling as a pastor is to help shift our thoughts about God from the clouds down to the block. How do average, day-to-day people think about God and experience God? How does our faith influence our jobs or how we’re raising our kids, spending our money, engaging politically, and responding to the injustices we’ve seen in our city? I think our faith speaks to all of that and gives us a lens through which to think about all of it.
"I believe the church needs to be a beacon of hope in people's day-to-day lives—regardless of what's happening in the world around us."
Can you share an example of what that looks like?
Right across the street from our church is a Cub Foods. It's the only full-service grocery store in the community. After the death of George Floyd and the riots that took place, it was damaged. They closed for a while, and there was no place in North Minneapolis for people to get their groceries. So, our church shifted to become a distribution site where we gave out food, toiletries, clothing, fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, and all kinds of stuff. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day of 2020, we served more than 10,000 families. And I don’t believe work like that is optional. Our faith calls us to be the hands and feet of Jesus, so we need to bless people tangibly.
Can you say more about how you feel called to do tangible work?
I believe the church needs to be a beacon of hope in people's day-to-day lives—regardless of what's happening in the world around us. And I feel like if the church loses that, we've lost our way. So, I'm always asking myself, “How are we making a difference?” Because when I look at the life of Jesus, he impacted people in their spiritual lives but also in their day-to-day lives. He gave people water and healed the blind. It was holistic. So, I honestly don't know how to be a church or a follower of Jesus without living into that. Because doing tangible work and caring about our neighbors doesn't distract us from following Jesus; it helps us follow Jesus in a more sincere way.
What does it mean to you to be a neighbor?
At our church, we use that term—neighboring—all the time. We turn it into a verb. It means living every day with not just your own interests in mind, but the wellbeing and best interest of the other folks that call this community home. It means really getting to know the folks who live on this block. It means asking people what the community needs instead of assuming we know what it needs. It means being a place where people can gather and vent and celebrate and cry. That’s a part of what it means to love others.
How does your identity as a Black Minnesotan inform the way you lead your church?
We describe ourselves as a Black-led, Black-centered multiethnic church. That means we're mindful of the fact that a majority of North Minneapolis is a Black community. It informs the style of music that we do, the way I communicate as a preacher, and the way we approach the community. I use family language with people. I call them auntie and unc, because I do feel like people expect their church to not just see them as projects to work on or people to convert. They desire that family feel.
What is the vision that all of this leads to?
I lead one church, but I’ve always had a desire to be a part of a movement of churches. I’d like to see a church like Sanctuary pop up on the East Side of Saint Paul in the next couple of years. Or in Saint Cloud or Chicago or Miami. Minneapolis is not the only city that’s growing more and more diverse every year. So, I’d love to be a part of a new movement of intentionally diverse, community-centered churches growing and flourishing across the country.
What are you building?
I have an 11-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old daughter, and we live here in North Minneapolis. I think about their future, and I think about other kids their age who are growing up here. I want them to be able to grow up and not be saddled by the stereotypes of where they live. I want their community to be a place that nurtures them and gives them the things they need and the things they should have the opportunity to experience—clean parks and little league and good schools. I want them to have whole and healthy futures. Overall, I want to see progress. But here's the kicker: I don't want the community that lives here now to be pushed out in order for that progress to happen. We should be able to enjoy the good things that can come to a community like this.
What drives you to get there?
I talk a lot about creating hope for other people, but hope is the fuel that keeps me going, too. Hope that things can be better. That what we're experiencing right now in our city is not the best that God has for us. That we can have agency over what we're experiencing in our life. At the heart of it—and I say this is as a pastor of a multiethnic church—so many of people’s desires and wants are the same. We want relationships, we want to know we're loved, we want to be cared for, we want to enjoy ourselves, and we want our children and our grandchildren to have an opportunity to do well in the future. So, I'm hopeful that not only religious leaders, but all kinds of leaders—our city and state government and others—can have the sort of imagination that's needed to make North Minneapolis and communities like it more of what we all want.