First Faith Community Expo brings Rochester leaders together in a most unusual gathering
The goal of the gathering: To connect people in need with people who can help.
ROCHESTER — A most unusual assemblage of organizations and players gathered Thursday. It may have been the first of its kind in Rochester.
Mingling under one roof at the Best Western Empire Center in Rochester were representatives of faith-based organizations and churches on one hand, and leaders of Rochester K-12 and higher education, business and nonprofit organizations and law enforcement groups, on the other.
The first-ever Faith Community Expo was meant to serve as an introduction of sorts.
Turnover in leadership has occurred “on all levels” in Rochester since 2020, both in faith-based organizations and “marketplace leadership,” including nonprofits, businesses and law enforcement, as well as at the Rochester City Council and Olmsted County Board of Commissioners, said Wendell Amstutz, founder of the National Community Resource Center and the event organizer.
While these changes were taking place, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented many leaders and organizations from coming together and getting to know one another. Thursday’s gathering was meant as a long overdue how-do-you-do.
Amstutz noted that five of the largest evangelical churches in Rochester have had new senior pastors installed within the last five to six years.
“So we’re asking people to come together, get acquainted, and let’s figure out how we can best serve the needs of Rochester,” Amstutz said.
At a deeper level, the gathering, which Amstutz called a long-sought “dream,” was an attempt to connect people in need with people who can help. It’s the mission statement of his nonprofit as well.
Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Kent Pekel, one of the invited guests and speakers, said a major priority of the district’s new strategic plan is building community partnerships.
The district’s policy is to be inclusive of all religious traditions, while being mindful of the church-state line that exists between schools and faith-based organizations.
Pekel noted since his arrival as superintendent, a student-driven Muslim celebration was launched at Mayo High School. Some students also wanted to read the Book of Mormon as part of a before-school activity. Rochester schools, he said, are welcoming of such activities as long as they are organized by students and don’t take place during the school day.
Pekel said he would rather risk crossing that line unintentionally than “not have that partnership” with faith-based groups.
Rochester Community and Technical College President Jeffery Boyd told the gathering that many students struggle with mental health issues, and food and housing insecurity. He appealed for their help.
“So what do they (students) need? They need people to kind of go alongside them and to help serve them, which many of you do in all your organizations,” Boyd said.
David Hunter introduced himself as the new center director of Adult & Teen Challenge in Rochester, a Christ-centered drug and alcohol recovery program. He noted that 107,000 people between 18 and 35 died from drug overdoses in 2021.
“When I hear those numbers, what I hear is an attack on our younger generation, on our younger people,” he said. “And it is encouraging to see all of us stepping up and making an effort to save lives.”
LuAnn Buechler, owner of PMC Events & Consulting, is a business coach and consultant. Her consultancy is focused on helping businesses expand their customer base to include more diverse populations, as well as helping new businesses acclimate themselves to Rochester.
Buechler said the expo was “very unique” and “very much needed,” because it would lead to an exchange and cross-pollination of ideas.
“It’s needed because we need to cross-populate,” Buechler said. “I don’t hang out with law enforcement folks. Right? I just met the superintendent of schools. That wouldn’t have happened in any other place.”