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Stocking up on socks

Anybody who has grown up in Minnesota and experienced a winter has experienced a “sock emergency” -— time spent out in the snow, building snowmen and snow forts, followed by the inevitable wet, cold socks when you come in from outside.

St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Austin stepped up this month to help avoid sock emergencies at Woodson Kindergarten Center by providing — socks.

Pastor Madison Chelberg, left, and Pastor Mark Niethammer pose with collected socks that will be donated to Woodson Kindergarten Center. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

“I have a son who is in kindergarten and his wonderful teacher, through some friends and family, decided that they should probably provide an extra pair of socks for each kid in that class,” said Pastor Mark Niethammer.

Niethammer was immediately enamored by the idea, but it also spawned a thought: What about the rest of the school? Could it be done for the entire school and what part could St. Olaf play in this sock mobilization?

“We set out to avoid these wet emergencies,” Niethammer said. “The deeper thing at play this year has been tough enough on all the school kids. With so many challenges, the last thing we need is to put five and six-year-olds in a situation where their feet are wet and cold.”

Niethammer and Pastor Madison Chelberg turned to the parishioners of the church with the idea of collecting socks for this project, but not just ordinary run-of-the-mill socks. These are socks that needed to be a reflection.

“I think that when it started in worship is when we made the announcement,” Chelberg said. “[Mark] had posted a couple things on Facebook earlier and we kind of hinted at it and previewed it earlier. It got our people excited over what the heck are these crazy socks?”

And crazy just about covers it. On Thursday, 667 pairs of socks were collected and piled in the entryway of St. Olaf. Brightly colored neon socks, socks with animals and socks with funny faces were part of this collection that took just 10 days to gather.

“We wanted to give it some branding, so it’s ‘Silly Socks for Creative Critters,’” Niethammer said.

While the sock drive was a major success, it’s one of only many smaller projects the church and its members take on during the year.

In the five years Niethammer has been with St. Olaf, the church has been a persistent presence not only within its walls, but in the community itself.

“We’ve also been able to mobilize different segments of the community in a certain way,” Niethammer said. “It all runs through St. Olaf Lutheran Church, but in the last few years we have decided we are for our neighbors. That’s our drum that we keep pounding. We are for our neighbors.”

It’s an initiative that has taken the church outside of its walls to continue service to the community of Austin and it’s found a great amount of success. There have been food drives, military care packages and care packages for new mothers by creating partnerships with other groups in the community, which has allowed St. Olaf to adapt so well to the changing times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When churches were shuttered in the early days of the pandemic, many went to online services to continue their good works, but as restrictions were lifted, many churches have gone back to in-person worship. St. Olaf has continued with online only, but in some ways that’s been a boon.

“We’re not in person for worship yet,” Niethammer said. “But part of what this project and projects like this do is remind us that the church is not this building. It’s not what we do here, it’s about our call to live faithfully when we leave this place.”

And if providing dry socks for kindergartners is part of that, even if the drive is over, then the mission is successful.

“I think it’s a good, easy way for people to get involved when they can’t necessarily be at the church right now,” Chelberg said. “It’s an easy thing. You pick up a pair of socks when you’re out getting groceries and bring them to church. It helps people stay connected.”