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Faith and Community Served Alongside Culinary Delights at Minnesota State Fair

by Ryan Lee
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Minnesota State Fair and Faith Communities

As dawn broke on an especially humid opening day at the Minnesota State Fair, Jeff Knott and his two daughters were already queued up for breakfast outside the Hamline Church Dining Hall.

The family, who are of the Lutheran faith and are at the fair to showcase their teenage daughters’ pigs named Billy and Lil’ Red, prefer this Methodist-run, volunteer-operated dining establishment for its early opening hours, diverse menu featuring the notable “hamloaf” sandwich, and its philanthropic mission.

“The earnings here are allocated to missionary work, something I consider to be valuable,” noted Knott, just before the family offered a prayer of thanks at one of the bustling tables in the hall. Thirteen-year-old Elsie Knott humorously lamented, “They don’t have deep-fried Oreos, though.”

The Minnesota State Fair is fertile ground for expressions of faith, deeply integrated into the fabric of these end-of-summer agrarian festivals that occur across the United States. These fairs serve as a gathering place for 4-H youth showing off their award-winning animals, as well as political figures presenting their electoral ambitions.

In the heart of the Twin Cities, beyond two church-run dining halls that have collectively been in operation for two centuries, fairgoers can find Sunday services, booths distributing complimentary Bibles or Qurans, and even a stage dedicated to Christian musical performances.

Boasting an attendance exceeding two million in pre-pandemic times—remarkable in a state with a population of 5.7 million—the fair presents religious organizations with a unique platform to extend their hospitality and offer a vanishing slice of Americana to an increasingly varied audience.

“Providing service is how I express my love,” stated Stephanie Engebrecht, a newcomer as a dining hall volunteer and an employee at Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul. Engebrecht found the act of refilling coffee cups for a couple who first attended the fair on their honeymoon 62 years ago as a means of forming genuine connections.

These dining halls, one founded in 1897 and the other operated by Minneapolis’ Salem Lutheran Church, are the last vestiges of a once-thriving community service model that catered to farmers showcasing their top-quality produce, livestock, and crafts.

“Financing for churches was heavily influenced by state fair dining hall revenues,” informed Jane McClure, Hamline Church’s historian. Even today, fundraising at the fair continues to play a critical role, supporting services for the homeless and food programs in local communities.

The dining halls not only offer food but also preserve a quickly vanishing rural ambiance, observed Chris Gehrz, a history professor at nearby Bethel University. He noted that explicit proselytizing has been regulated strictly since a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision that restricted certain religious groups from distributing faith-based literature at the fair.

Within the dining halls, religious elements are subtly present—through prayer plaques on the walls and leaders wearing “pastor” name tags as they serve items like Swedish meatballs or Midwestern interpretations of Mexican paletas.

The mission of faith sometimes extends to the volunteers’ attire. For example, on one Saturday, Methodists advocating for LGBTQ inclusion donned purple aprons while volunteering at the Hamline hall.

Adjacent to it, at the Crossroads Chapel, volunteers in bright red vests marked “prayer team” have been operating a Christian bookstore, chapel, and tent offering free Bibles for seven decades.

“This is Minnesota’s largest mission field,” commented Crossroads board member Terry Schuveiller, revealing that the prayer teams distributed 5,000 Bibles at the previous year’s fair.

At a booth providing free Qurans, located in the educational building, Mashood Yunus, a founding member of the group aimed at dispelling misconceptions about Islam, emphasized the significance of the fair, especially during an election year, to counteract the spread of misinformation.

Catholic Mass also finds its place at the fair, attracting hundreds of attendees, according to Rev. Robert Fitzpatrick. The retired priest humorously referred to it as “Mass on a stick,” an allusion to iconic fair foods.

However, in recent times, all these organizations face the challenge of securing sufficient volunteers, a predicament that has become pervasive among charities nationwide post-COVID-19.

“Even contemplating closure is a possibility,” admitted Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard of Hamline Church, indicating that nearly 600 volunteer shifts are required to serve an estimated 30,000 meals during the fair—an uphill task even for larger congregations.

At the end of the day, the fair serves as more than just a venue for entertainment and commerce. It is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of faith communities, demonstrating that even in modern times, a sense of purpose and community can be served right alongside the culinary delights.

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This article on religious activities is supported by the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. Responsibility for the content lies solely with the AP.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Minnesota State Fair and Faith Communities

What is the main focus of the article?

The main focus of the article is the role of religious organizations at the Minnesota State Fair, particularly how they use the event for community outreach, philanthropy, and subtle forms of evangelization.

How do religious organizations participate in the fair?

Religious organizations participate in the Minnesota State Fair through various means, including dining halls that serve hot meals, booths that hand out religious texts, and stages that feature religious bands. Some even engage in mission work, leveraging the fair’s high attendance to reach a wider audience.

What kinds of foods are served at religious organization-run dining halls?

The dining halls run by religious organizations offer a variety of foods, including signature items like “hamloaf” sandwiches and Swedish meatballs. Some even serve unique offerings like dill pickle lemonade paletas, a Midwestern twist on Mexican popsicles.

How do the fairgoers perceive the involvement of religious organizations?

The involvement of religious organizations is generally seen as positive, providing a slice of Americana to an increasingly diverse crowd. The fairgoers appreciate the early openings of the dining halls and the philanthropic missions that some of the proceeds support.

How do religious organizations fund their activities at the fair?

Many religious organizations use the proceeds from their activities at the fair to fund their missions, which may include local outreach programs such as homeless shelters and food ministries.

Are there any controversies surrounding the religious involvement at the fair?

The article does not delve into controversies, but it does mention that outright proselytizing has been tightly regulated since a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. This ruling restricted the Hare Krishna society from distributing literature about their faith at the fair.

How have volunteer numbers changed for religious organizations post-pandemic?

The article notes that like many other charities across the country, religious organizations at the Minnesota State Fair are struggling to find enough volunteers post-COVID-19 pandemic.

What kinds of religious texts are distributed at the fair?

Both Bibles and Qurans are distributed for free at the fair. There are even specialized versions of the Bible, including Spanish-language and comic book-style editions aimed at children.

How do religious organizations accommodate diversity at the fair?

Organizations like the Building Blocks of Islam aim to combat misinformation about Islam by distributing free Qurans. Other religious groups support LGBTQ inclusion, as exemplified by Methodist congregations wearing purple aprons at the Hamline dining hall.

What historical significance do religious organizations have at the Minnesota State Fair?

Religious organizations have had a longstanding presence at the fair. Some church dining halls have been operational for over a century, and they were once a significant source of funding for the churches.

More about Minnesota State Fair and Faith Communities

  • Minnesota State Fair Official Website
  • History of Religious Involvement in U.S

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