Small town finds new life in old movie theater

Ben Greene

Pastor & writer

  • Church planting & multiplication


The movie theater in Milaca, Minnesota, closed a few years ago, but the building hasn’t stopped hosting stories the town wants to hear. 


Dori Vredenburg can testify to that. She asked Trent Bergeron for counsel during a rough stretch for her family. Trent and other disciples led a recovery ministry of Free Grace United, which has grown into a Free Grace United congregation. 


What she heard that day from pastor Bergeron was helpful, but more than that, it stirred her into being part of FGU’s core team. 


“That church gave us so much hope when we didn’t know where to turn and what to do,” she said. 


The River of Life is transforming Milaca


Free Grace United has several congregations in Minnesota, Iowa, and around the world, but it is one church, including the disciples that Bergeron pastors in Milaca.  


He first led a Free Grace recovery ministry in Milaca for people with drug and alcohol addictions. That endeavor became today’s church in the community of 3000, where the Rum River runs near a 125-year-old bank and boutique shops. 


Related: A South Carolina church is creating a new future in a historic community. 


Vredenburg said the rural Minnesota community has many people who struggle with drugs and alcohol. For the people around her to see a church that wants to be in Milaca and open the door to love, transformation and acceptance has been powerful. 


She said Free Grace United’s culture prevents people from being treated one way inside the church and another way outside it. According to Vredenburg, Minnesotans know in their hearts they have as much right as anyone to be in God’s family.  


Because of the Converge North Central church, they can now feel like they belong in God’s family. She said everybody is met with the attitude that they will be loved right where they are. 


“Everybody just always feels like they belong” at Free Grace United, she said. 


Hard times empower Bergeron to help others


Bergeron has felt on the outside before and has been through hard times as a drug addict and alcoholic. The professional musician from Louisiana played a lot of blues, Zydeco and Cajun music before he ended up in a Minneapolis shelter. 


Related: A Washington man battled addictions until he found victory and planted a church. 


He was in a room at a Salvation Army building on August 29, 2009, at 2:33 a.m., when he hit his knees and gave Jesus control of his life. That night, he received what he now gives away in Milaca. 


“God’s grace is free because of Jesus,” he said. “Grace isn’t something we earn or deserve; it’s given by God because of Jesus.” 


Pastor Darren Olsen started meeting with Bergeron and his wife, Patricia, helping him grow in the faith as a new believer. After the Bergerons moved, Olsen encouraged them to attend Free Grace United’s church in Elk River, Minnesota. 


The Bergerons’ experience in 2012 matched Vredenburg's more than 10 years later. 


“I had never been to a church and felt so welcomed and loved,” Bergeron said. “It was just amazing.” 


So Trent and Patricia devoted themselves to growth and transformation. He also went to Free Grace Bible College and became a mentee of pastor Jason Keech.  



The mentee is ready for ministry


In 2014, Bergeron launched a Free Grace Recovery ministry a few blocks from the movie theater. The recovery ministry started in a vacant, old downtown building on Central Avenue where the train used to run. 


Bergeron and a team rehabbed the unused space to make it fit for God’s purposes among men and women battling addictions. After their sweat equity had transformed the space, the owner let them use it rent-free. 


“Talk about an all-God story,” Bergeron said. 


Related: Read more of God’s work in buildings that haven’t always been worship spaces. 


Four years later, after praying about Milaca residents’ request for a church, Keech eventually started Free Grace United’s congregation there alongside Bergeron and the recovery ministry. 


“I felt God calling me to start a church in Milaca,” Bergeron said. “I really felt led to do this in Milaca. I just love this little community.” 


Related: God’s filled many pastors’ hearts with love for their communities around America. 


A new path for people to meet, know and follow Jesus

The Lord loves Milaca even more, so he’s creating more stories among the town’s many unchurched people. Bergeron explained that the area has a strong Christian background, but people have drifted from God or been hurt in congregations.  


Now, though, they have a church that reaches those who are unsure about what Jesus did and want to learn more about him. There are Bible studies and events for men, women, and children. The church joyfully participates in town events, too. 


“We do things to bring the community together and to get them close to Jesus,” Bergeron said. “It’s not by accident that we’re here. We’re just taking ground for God, and it’s amazing that we get to do this.” 


Converge's 10 districts have committed to deploying 312 church planters before 2026. Read more inspiring church planting stories and learn about the goal to send out 312 church planters in five years.

Ben Greene, Pastor & writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene