“God, would you come and move so powerfully in this community that people would start calling it ‘Godtown?’”
That was John Tolo’s prayer one night several years ago after moving his ministry to St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. The previous few years had been a time of transition for Tolo, a time of exploring new avenues of ministry and seeing where God was leading. The idea for Godtown, however, would have its roots across the river in Minneapolis.
For three years, Tolo was behind The Hot Spot café, a free coffee shop in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis. The idea behind the café was to offer a gathering place for the community where they could find peace and build relationships—potentially with believers.
After a time, however, Tolo felt God leading him to a different focus. Since the free coffee shop’s founding, others ministries had moved in to the area and were offering significant Christian ministry and Tolo believed these ministries were better equipped. In a sense, he felt they had accomplished what they had set out to do.
“At the end of our time in Dinkytown, we really started to get a burden for finding an abandoned house in an inner city neighborhood and then going into the neighborhood and establishing a mission base,” Tolo said.
As someone who had grown up in the inner city, Tolo had a passion and a heart to work in urban settings.
When Tolo and his wife, Jennifer, felt God saying it was time to move on their new mission, the couple contacted a real estate agent and visited nearly two dozen houses before they found the right one—or two—in Frogtown.
“Finally … we found this place; it was actually two houses on this property,” Tolo said. “This one had been abandoned for 10 years,” referring to the main house. “The one next to it had been abandoned for seven years. There were two houses on one lot, and they were both being used to sell drugs. There were people who would come and crash in here.”
The long road of construction and restoration would now begin.
The overall ministry plan was still developing, but they knew they wanted to provide “safe, sober community for young adults,” Tolo said. “And to have something that impacts the community.”
And that wasn’t really much different from what Tolo did with The Hot Spot café.
“It’s really a continuation of what we were doing when we had The Hot Spot over in Dinkytown, which is really focusing on what things transform a community and how do you engage this generation in a way that’s really relevant to them,” he said.
The Godtown initiative has several offshoots, including the Frogtown Community House and Garden Project; the Safe City Project; the Urban Mission Training Program (UMTP); and Young Adult Koinonia.
The Tolos also weren’t just going to do ministry in the neighborhood; they wanted to live in the area as well, so they rented a home less than a block from the main mission house.
As construction began on the main house, students and young adults began visiting each day, looking for ways to help. In light of their eagerness to work, Tolo determined they should add Bible teaching to this physical labor time. He had been positively impacted by the Lay Ministry Training Center out of North Heights Lutheran Church many years ago, so the idea of a practical training program began to develop in Tolo’s mind.
“We decided to start the Urban Mission Training Program,” Tolo said. “Within a month, we’d made it really flexible, so … people can commit to being involved part time and come one day a week. If people want to be involved full time, it’s three days a week.”
The training runs in several cycles: January to May; June to the end of August; and September to December, with a few weeks here and there for breaks.
Tolo describes the growing training program as “a tech school for ministry.” Students devote 70 percent of their time to action, while 30 percent is devoted to classroom work.
“If you look at what Jesus did, the disciples followed Him around and then He would tell parables. He would do stuff and then they’d regroup and go, ‘What was all that about?’” Tolo said. “That’s kind of what we do.”
Students spend one hour each morning in prayer, followed by three hours of work on one of the community houses or gardens or participating in one of several community outreaches.
Ivana is a student in UMTP. She went on a missions trip with Tolo last year and felt the Lord calling her to become part of Godtown. On Tuesdays, she goes with a group into the neighborhood streets and evangelizes.
“We go with a prophetic lady,” Ivana said. “We go on treasure hunts. We ask God for clues like a piece of clothing or something, and then He will put something out. Then we will go out. It always works. God is always faithful. We always find someone who needs encouragement, someone who needs prayer. People come here. They are just drawn.”
The idea of being present is a centerpiece for what Tolo hopes to accomplish.
“The biggest thing that has been crucial for us is to be visible and to be present,” Tolo said. “The impact we have in this neighborhood is because we’re occupying the land. We started with one little piece, and now we’re actively involved in 55 blocks. That’s in three years.”
Since the first house in March of 2011, Tolo said they now work with 10 homes in the neighborhood. They have the Eden Men’s House, which is occupied by men in the training program; the House of Hope for women; the Victory House and the Micah House, which opens in February.
They also have plans to convert a closed-down bar into the ministry’s meeting place and headquarters.
As they have become involved with more houses, the mission has remained the same: to be a positive impact on the community with the Gospel.
When it comes to the financial costs associated with the homes, Tolo said they rely completely on God for the finances.
“We really don’t have any finances,” he said. “God just provides perfectly all the time. We never quite know how He is going to do it.”
The resources for each ministry arrive when they need them.
“We had an objective that we knew was God-given and then we began to just look at the opportunities,” Tolo said. “One of the things we’ve never done is expect to have the resources before the assignment. We get the assignment and then what happens [is] the resources show up. I’ve learned that the provision is in the assignment. When you are in the assignment, He is going to provide.”
Mark is another UMTP student who lives in one of the men’s mission houses. He was invited to join Tolo on a missions trip some time ago, and since he has a Class A driver’s license Mark got to drive the bus. On that trip, he fell in love with the mission of Godtown and has spent the last 18 months enrolled in UMTP.
“If you were wondering the same thing I was—when you are reading books like Acts and why doesn’t this stuff happen, why aren’t there communities like this anymore—and you feel like you’re reading the Bible but you need more, which everybody does, just come down here and spend a day just even observing, just see what’s going on,” he said. “You’re going to be changed just by doing that, because God is actively moving in this neighborhood.”
ACTIONPOINT: For more information on Godtown and the various related ministries, visit www.godtown.org.
— by Scott Noble