Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Faribault: Homelessness up close January 14, 2021

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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The homeless, photographed in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, in June 2018 near the state capitol. The wings on the side of the Wisconsin Historical Museum were part of a temporary art installment, “Pink Flamingo Wings.” But I viewed them differently, as symbolic, as angel wings of hope for these two men. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only and as documentation of homelessness.

DAYS LATER, THE SCENE still haunts me. The scene unfolding in my neighbor’s yard at 8 Sunday morning, just across our driveway and up a small incline.

Only minutes earlier, I turned on the radio, tuned to KDHL for the worship service at Trinity Lutheran Church. As I listened, I spooned coffee grounds into a filter, filled the reservoir with water, then switched on the coffee maker to start my day.

Typically, I would be in church, worshiping in person. But, since the start of the pandemic, Randy and I have opted to stay home and listen to services either online or on the radio. It’s not my preference. But it’s my comfort level.

As I listened, I lifted the dining room shade. It was then I noticed him. The man outside a massive dumpster set in my neighbor’s driveway. At first I thought it was my neighbor, but soon realized this was a stranger, who had now climbed inside the dumpster. He rummaged methodically through the contents. Picking up, then dropping stuff. Tossing. Sorting. Moving items.

I watched mesmerized. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive or uncaring. But I felt momentarily stunned. This was a first—a presumably homeless man in my neighborhood. I felt helpless, wondering what, if anything, I could or should do. I worried that he may not be warm enough in his maroon hoodie layered under a heavy plaid flannel shirt jacket. I noticed he at least wore gloves. I worried that he may not have food. I worried, too, that he may not have shelter, a warm place to sleep in the cold of a Minnesota winter.

A Good Shepherd stained glass window inside Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So many thoughts filtered through my brain as I watched while simultaneously listening to hymns and Bible readings and a sermon about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Words that invited me to hear the voice of Jesus, to support, encourage and uplift others, including those in my community.

By my lack of action, I wasn’t exactly following that directive to live out my faith. I failed miserably. Because I did nothing.

I thought of phoning the non-emergency police number. But what would I say? That I felt concern for a man rummaging through a dumpster? That seemed a faulty plan since the individual had committed no crime. And what if the police came and the scenario quickly changed to something ugly. I’ve read/heard of that happening all too often. Not here. But as nearby as the Twin Cities metro an hour distant. I wouldn’t risk that.

And so I found myself at a loss. Approaching the man seemed unwise given COVID, concerns about my safety and so much uncertainty. I drank my coffee, ate my cereal in the warmth of my home. Sheltered from the cold.

After nearly 45 minutes, the man climbed out of the dumpster and onto his fat tire bicycle. He coasted down the street, turned the corner, then pedaled away. Empty-handed.

TELL ME: What would you have done? If this ever happens again, I want to feel prepared, perhaps have a plan of action to help. I’m open to suggestions, even to specific resources available to assist individuals like this. Thank you.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Appleton, Wisconsin: Focusing on homelessness via the Little Red Wagon January 21, 2015

Little Red Wagon movieWHEN CHURCHES PRACTICE what they preach, they make a noticeable impact in the world.

When individuals do good, they also make a difference.

This Saturday The Mission Church will impact Appleton, Wisconsin, with a free screening of the movie, Little Red Wagon, based on the true story of Zach Bonner. In 2005, the then 7-year-old founded the Little Red Wagon Foundation, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged kids, focusing on those who are homeless. Just a year earlier, he’d canvassed his Arkansas neighborhood with his little red wagon gathering items for survivors of Hurricane Charley.

Zach, who now lives in Florida, will be in Appleton for the 10 a.m. Saturday, January 24, screening at Valley Value Cinemas, 2165 South Memorial Drive, and for a reception following at The Mission, 314 North Appleton Street. Movie attendees are invited to afterward walk the two miles from the movie theatre to the church, thus visually and publicly raising awareness of homelessness.

Now, you’re likely wondering how I know about this movie event 300 miles from my Minnesota home. Well, my second daughter, Miranda, lives in Appleton and attends The Mission Church. She phoned recently all excited about the Little Red Wagon. I’m not surprised. Twice after Hurricane Katrina, she traveled to New Orleans to assist with clean-up. She’s a young woman with a big heart and a passion for helping others.

So even though this project is not happening in my main readership area, I couldn’t turn down my daughter’s request to publicize this cause.

In addition to the movie showing and the Q & A with Zach, The Mission Church has been collecting small toys, activity books, socks, mittens, sample-size toiletries, food and more to fill 300 “Zach Packs,” bags measuring 14 by 17 inches. These will be gifted to area homeless children through Harbor House (which serves victims and survivors of domestic abuse) and Homeless Connections (an organization helping the homeless in the Fox Valley region), Miranda says.

If you live in eastern Wisconsin, I’d encourage you to attend this Little Red Wagon event in Appleton on Saturday. If you can’t be there, like me, I suggest you check out the Little Red Wagon website by clicking here. The nonprofit accepts monetary donations for its projects. Or take action in your own community.

Watch the movie trailer by clicking here. As the narrator says, “In every one of us there is the power to do great things.”

All we need to do is act.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


I meet the face of homelessness in Faribault May 17, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:22 AM
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ON SUNDAY, I CAME face to face with homelessness for the first time.

Sure, I’d read the news stories and statistics. But in the deepest depths, I never quite believed that homelessness exists in Rice County. We are, after all, out-state Minnesota and not “the Cities.”

However, that naïve thinking—or perhaps it is more an attitude of not wanting to believe—changed when I met a homeless woman after Sunday morning worship services at the Lutheran church I attend in Faribault.

When the middle-aged woman and her companion, a young man perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s, walk into the nearly-empty narthex, I can’t help but notice them. In their worn, casual attire, they don’t really fit in.

Even writing that last sentence, I feel profoundly judgmental. I have just come from a contemporary “Connection” service where I’ve sung about embracing others. Although I can’t recall the exact words, I remember the line about a strange woman slipping into the pews and the staring glances of faithful worshippers.

I will admit that on Sunday morning I am more cautious than welcoming.

As the woman enters the narthex, I approach her because, clearly, she is looking for someone. “Can I help you?” I ask as she walks toward me. Her male friend (or maybe he is her son) is already half way across the room. I am keeping a distrustful eye on him. Earlier this year, a stranger prowled our church during worship services and stole a computer and other items. Since then, we as a congregation have been on watchful alert.

As I am thinking all of this, the woman asks to speak with the pastor, whom she met in March. “Which pastor?” I inquire, giving their names.

She doesn’t remember, but I tell her I will take her to the pastor. As we head toward his office, she explains how she already has been to another church in town that morning seeking help. She found none there, although she says she got a doughnut. That pastor had left for the day.

I am surprised that she shares this information and her first name. Perhaps she is trying to emphasize her desperate situation.

She talks about a man who “tricked” her and something about the wife he is divorcing and that’s why she is without a place to live. I don’t quite understand the situation. But rather than probe, which would be typical of me and my inquisitive nature, I keep quiet.

She seems to need a listening ear and I can at least give her that, and her dignity.

Then she apologizes for her comments. I tell her she’s entitled.

We are walking through the gym now where volunteers are setting up food for an afternoon reception. “Are you having a lunch here?” she asks, the new optimism in her voice noticeable.

“Oh, it’s a reception for someone who’re retiring,” I reply, knowing full well that’s she’s likely hungry. I wish I could offer her some food, but I don’t feel it’s my right to do so.

Then we are at the main office, where the pastor is just leaving.

“These folks would like to talk to you,” I say, wishing I could remember the woman’s name. Typically, I am good at recalling names.

As I turn to leave, the pastor is already jingling his keys, opening his office door to allow the pair inside. The door closes.

I walk away, wondering about this woman and, if by failing to remember her name, it will be easier for me to dismiss her and her homelessness.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling