Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul harnesses the power of volunteers from diverse faith and spiritual communities to support families and individuals who are striving to achieve stability and economic mobility.
In the period of approximately 2013-2015, the board of the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches, founded in 1906, underwent an intensive period of introspection. They arrived at two conclusions. The first was that as people of faith, stakeholders wanted to ensure that they were maximizing efforts to address poverty in their community. The second was that they would be more successful from a broader base – it no longer seemed prudent to remain as an exclusively Christian organization. These conclusions were sparked by stakeholder interviews which found when confronting poverty, there remains a large amount of untapped volunteer labor from faith communities. The resulting solution was an interfaith structural response to poverty, creating a corps of faith-based volunteers to mobilize throughout the city.
To realize this new vision, the council underwent a rebrand, titling themselves Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul. For the first time in its history, the organization sought an executive director who is neither Christian nor a clergy member, but mainly qualified for his or her anti-poverty expertise. To this end, the board hired a Jewish woman, Randi Ilyse Roth, as executive director. Roth was formerly the director of philanthropy at the Otto Bremer Foundation in Saint Paul and a legal aid attorney. Opening the doors of the former Council of Churches created an opportunity to diversify anti-poverty work and move the organization forward from its Christian protestant roots to a truly pluralistic response:
When I came into Interfaith Action five years ago, work needed to be done to build or re-build relationships with African American churches. We have worked hard to step up and be a good faith partner and provide value and build.
Providing value is exactly what Roth has done. Under Roth’s leadership, Interfaith Action has expanded the services offered by the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches, Project Home, and the Department of Indian Work, as well as added two more programs, Opportunity Saint Paul and Community Power-Up, which serve as structural models for an interfaith response for poverty.
For years, one of the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches main operations was running a homeless shelter in Saint Paul houses of worship called Project Home, staffed by volunteers from faith communities. With the newfound mission of Interfaith Action, Project Home has been expanded to meet the needs of those experiencing housing insecurity. In 2019, Project Home became an integrated, full-time endeavor with the opening of a day center, providing meals, lockers, showers and educational programming. In addition, Interfaith Action hired a full-time rapid exit case worker, who helps families find stable housing and employment. “It’s more than shelter,” says Roth. “We’re talking about all of these programs as aiming for stability and economic mobility.”
The Department of Indian Work (DIW) is one of five institutions in the Greater Saint Paul area providing services to the Native American community. These services include emergency aid, a food shelf, a clothing closet, diabetes prevention services and educational programming, as well as Native-specific after school programming taught by all Native staff members and teachers. After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, demand for food shelf services rose 314%. “A lot of my job is looking for money to pay for food,” says Roth. Historically, the Department of Indian Work was established under the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches as part of the American church’s “Doctrine of Discovery,” which sought to “civilize” and Christianize Native folks. Under the new identity of Interfaith Action, the services offered through the DIW are viewed as part of an interfaith, multi-racial response to poverty in dialogue with the communities in which they offer services.
The new initiatives under Roth, Opportunity Saint Paul and Community Power-Up, primarily aim to create infrastructure for the interfaith and multi-racial response to poverty. Opportunity Saint Paul is a model to create a reliable volunteer base from the over 700 houses of worship in Greater Saint Paul. The initiative finds eight volunteers per congregation who sign up to volunteer at least once a week at one of six Saint Paul non-profits doing impactful work to end poverty. These non-profits address a wide range of poverty-related issues including shelter, hunger, immigrant and refugee support, and childcare and literacy education. The volunteers across congregations gather every other month for learning opportunities and to connect with one another. These learning opportunities tend to focus on critical understandings of poverty and racism. A recent learning initiative was titled “Challenging Inequality: The Six Degrees of Segregation” led by Dr. Yohoru Williams from the Racial Justice Initiative at Saint Thomas University. Opportunity Saint Paul was intended for a wider roll out in fall 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. This model of volunteer outreach has been adopted by other interfaith organizations throughout the country.
While Opportunity Saint Paul is focused on recruiting volunteers from faith communities throughout Greater Saint Paul, the Community Power-Up focuses on making lasting relationships and impacts on a neighborhood scale. The Community Power-Up is a legal education program and legal clinic in the Selby-Dale neighborhood of Saint Paul. It began as a result of feedback from inner city clergy that they spend most of their time consulting about poverty, legal, and financial matters rather than spiritual matters. The first Power-Up session was held by Reverend Carl Walker of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Saint Paul. In lieu of a regular Wednesday night Bible study, once a month Interfaith Action brings in legal and financial professionals to consult and give advice to congregants. The sessions were a successful format for change, and now Power-Ups are held at the Walker West Institute for Music, co-founded by Rev. Carl Walker, so that members of different local congregations can convene. Live jazz music often accompanies these opportunities, and a local synagogue and two churches provide food and childcare for people during the open consultations and legal education events.
While the four programs run by Interfaith Action offer a wide variety of services, behind the scenes, Roth and her team endeavor to ensure that all the programs remain united in their goal to combat poverty. “We’re working hard on becoming one organization, not just a collection of programs that share the building like it’s a motel,” said Roth, “we’re integrating more and more with each other.” Integration does not just mean a consolidation of programming. Their volunteer base, and community partners have become increasingly diverse since Roth took the lead in 2015. “I think it’s important to have a multiracial volunteer corps for multiple reasons, the most important being substantive. Kids want to learn from someone who looks like them,” says Roth. Diversifying Interfaith Action is part of reclaiming and correcting the complicated legacy of the former Council of Churches. As Saint Paul continues to become more and more diverse in the 21st century, Interfaith Action is attempting to create a wholistic, faith-based, multi-racial response to poverty for all members of its community.
 “Renamed Saint Paul church group focuses on fighting poverty.” Saint Paul Pioneer Press.
 All quotes within this article are from Randi Roth. Interview with Author. Saint Paul, MN. July 2020.
 The six partner organization are Commonbond Communities, the Midwest’s largest nonprofit of affordable housing services, Daily Work, providing case management and employment services, the East Side Learning Center, providing tutoring, the Neighborhood House, supporting new immigrants and refugees with basic needs, Reading Partners to read with children, and the Saint Paul Public Library providing homework help and other resources. See https://interfaithaction.org/programs/opportunity-saint-paul/partner-organizations/ for more details. Accessed July 2020.
 “Saint Paul church offers blessings – and bankers.” Saint Paul Pioneer Press. www.twincities.com/2016/03/09/st-paul-church-offers-blessings-and-bankers/. Accessed July 2020.