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Pillow fort at Minneapolis church is more than just fluffy entertainment

It was supposed to be the biggest pillow fort in the world.

The record-breaking structure was to be built in the parking lot of Lake Harriet United Methodist Church in Minneapolis on a Sunday morning in early May, thanks to member donations of about 700 pillows.

Someone made plans. Someone else contacted representatives of the Guinness World Records organization.

But when that Sunday turned out to be drizzly and cold, construction of the fort was forced indoors. Members were still working to build the structure for the fellowship hall on the lower level of the church, with a significantly scaled-down design. Forget the planned 20ft tower and mast. And the walls, made of plastic-covered pillows attached to wires stretched between studs, were about 10 feet shorter on each side than original spec.

Meanwhile, Guinness informed the church that the organization would charge $13,000 to come out and rate the project as a world record.

“Never mind, thanks anyway,” the church replied.

So we’ll never know if the fort – maybe even the smaller version – broke a record. And yet, in almost every way, the event was a success.

While not as cheerful as it would have been on a sunny spring day, the event still featured a food truck and activities including a pillow catapult and design activity of pillowcases. People still had the ability to mingle and chat (through masks).

The children spent an hour and a half plunging into a pile of giant pillows – these too were plastic and would be given away – in the middle of the structure, laughing as they threw themselves on them or digged through the big, inflated piles.

And most importantly, homeless families – who otherwise might not sleep on pillows at all – will now sleep more comfortably.

“It was really fun,” said Reverend Karen Chatfield Bruins, pastor of the church. “I was a bit disappointed that we couldn’t be outside because it would have brought neighbours.”

But the event provided a valuable “opportunity to be together, to connect and to have fun after two really tough years,” Bruins said. “That goal was really achieved. There were happy people eating tacos and jumping on pillows.”

Build a community

The idea came from the son of a church member, who had seen an episode of the TV series “Community” in which the characters build a large pillow fort (plus a blanket fort, technically).

The hope was that the fort would attract surrounding neighbors – people who saw ads on social media or walked their dogs past the site and wondered what that big white thing was.

But when church members began planning the event in January, COVID was in full swing. So bringing people together safely, after a few years where about half of the members attended services remotely, was another of the event’s goals.

Good night sleep tight

In the end, the goal of the event was achieved: to collect hundreds of pillows to donate to homeless shelters.

Slumberland Furniture has promised to match the number collected by the church. So about 1,400 people will benefit, Bruins said; “Everyone deserves a good night’s sleep.”

There’s definitely a need at Simpson Housing Services, which houses, supports and advocates for homeless people in locations across the Twin Cities. The organization will receive a portion of the donated pillows.

“We have 70 people in our shelter – that’s a lot of pillows needed,” said Aaron Ramos, volunteer engagement coordinator. Pillows are rare at Simpsons, Ramos said, along with other bedding.

Ramos and Hannah Jones, Simpson’s communications and content specialist, set up an information table at the church event.

“When people think of homelessness, they think of socks, for some reason,” Ramos said. “So we have 20,000 pairs of socks but not a whole lot of other stuff.”

“Pillows are a basic need,” Jones said, adding that donations also tend to peak during the holiday season and dip at other times of the year.

Simpson recently announced that he has raised 70% of his $41 million fundraising goal to build a new Simpson shelter and community apartments in Minneapolis. The facility will include 70 accommodation beds, enhanced on-site services and 42 permanent affordable housing units, with construction to begin later this year or early 2023.

At the table next to Simpson sat representatives of People Serving People (PSP), which operates 99 hotel-style accommodation units for homeless families. It is also ready to receive donated pillows.

“It’s awesome, it’s so unique,” said Maria Pederson, PSP Development Coordinator. “I have never heard of or seen an event like this.”

Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities, a Christian ministry serving those who are homeless, poor or addicted, and Metro Hope Ministries, a Christian drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation program, also receive pillows. Other organizations have also contacted the church, Bruins said.

“Any time you have that many people working together on a project, there’s a wonderful positive energy that comes out of it,” she said.

“We had tons of volunteers helping out, so they actually created an event where you could have fun for a good cause.”

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