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Church stays put

Servant of the Shepherd Pastor Frank Lukasiewicz said the church's ministry caters to those in need of prayer, food, hugs, money and often, a safe place to stay.

"We'll take anybody anytime," said Lukasiewicz. "It's a safe place for people to come."

He says the Lord has blessed SOS so that it can continue the work it's been doing in River Falls for eight years. Lukasiewicz said the ministry caters to the community and reaches many people in recovery.

Since its start, SOS has grown from one family to 175 members. It started out meeting at another church, then in coffee shops or other public places.

When the Trinity Episcopal Church at 103 N. Fourth St. dissolved in 2004, its diocese allowed SOS to use the church and parsonage buildings.

According to Lukasiewicz, the Episcopalian bishop liked what he heard about SOS's ministry. Lukasiewicz says the diocese offered SOS use of the building plus first right of refusal, giving it first choice to buy the property if the church decided to sell.

The subject of buying the property resurfaced early last year when, according to a Journal story, the adjacent First Congregational Church explored buying the property, razing the building, and creating more parking at its Third Street location.

Lukasiewicz said, "Literally, the Lord blessed us so we could buy it."

SOS entered into a $225,000 land contract with the Episcopalian Diocese of Eau Claire last month. It will make payments over time for the church property.

Lukasiewicz said SOS is an independent Lutheran church, meaning it isn't supported by any Lutheran group. Funding for SOS's ministries comes from members and from two churches: Shepherd of the Valley in Afton, Minn., and Serenity Church of Charlotte, N. C.

Lukasiewicz said SOS is one of five, U.S. Christian churches considered a church of recovery.

"People know it's a safe place to come," he said. "Here there is no judgment...We don't want people to feel threatened. We want them to feel loved."

The pastor said SOS does as much ministry out of the parish house next door as it does from the church building. He calls it a safe house and says several people, including a house manager, live there and lend each other support at all hours of the day and night.

"There's ministry going 24/7," Lukasiewicz said, adding that it helps people who are hurting.

Lukasiewicz said church and community members might need food, shelter, clothing, furniture, a place to stay, some gas money or a combination of all those things. He said the ministry emphasizes maintaining people's dignity no matter what issues they're facing.

He said. "We try to look at everyone as Jesus in skin."

SOS maintains a food shelf, often stocking it three times a day. Big shelves hold dry goods and toiletries, and the church has some used refrigerators that hold perishables.

"If we have it, we'll give it," he said. "Everything comes from God anyway."

The church welcomes everyone to its 11 a.m. Sunday worship, a hot meal after services, weekly Bible study, recovery groups and other activities. Lukasiewicz said services consist of regular worship with communion, scripture reading, preaching, sharing the peace and lots of hugs.

One church member's testimony (full excerpt available at the SOS Web site) talks about the essence of the church: "I was honestly afraid that if I walked into church I would be struck by lightning or the church would burn down around me. I was so terrified that the first week I tried to go, I circled the block for 20 minutes and then left town. I just couldn't go in. The next week I circled three times, parked the car out front, and sat there for 20 minutes trying to get up the nerve to go in. On week number three, I made it inside and sat in the back row as close to the door as I could. No lightning, no fire, no judgment...Slowly but surely I felt the fear seep out and hope creep in."

People can learn more about SOS Lutheran Church by logging onto its Web site:

Who's Pastor Joel?

Servant Of the Shepherd Church's Associate Pastor Joel Hanson started at SOS church after graduating from seminary school in May. He'd worked a yearlong internship at SOS.

"The people loved him and he loved the people, and he decided the Lord was calling him here," said SOS Pastor Frank Lukasiewicz.

Hanson expects to be ordained next month. He lives across the river in St. Croix Beach, Minn., but is looking to move to River Falls. He attended one of SOS's supporting churches, the Shepherd of the Valley in Afton, Minn.

He said, "What attracted me to this church is the people."

Though he'll not receive a salary, part of his job will be getting out into the community and raising awareness about what SOS does.

A self-described "normie," he said many in the community seem to perceive SOS as some kind of program. Hanson said the first time he came to the church, he saw people worshiping, not people in some kind of program.

"This is not a program. This is a church," said Hanson. "Everybody goes to their program outside of church. It's a church first and foremost."

The newcomer says he thinks River Falls is a great place to be and he's looking forward to working more with the community.