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The Rev. Joretta Marshall, executive vice president and dean at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, talks with church officials and community members Monday morning at First Lutheran Church about how to foster open and welcoming church communities. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Finding a new home: Couple feels ‘embraced’ within congregation

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BEMIDJI – Kendra Olson was true to her word.

Olson, who came out last year as transgendered and began living her life as a woman, had promised her pastor that she would resign her membership from church if her presence caused any other member to leave or if it created a schism within the congregation.

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After watching both occur, Olson and her wife, Karen, resigned their 20-year memberships with a local church.

“There were people who were very close to us who turned their backs on Karen and me,” Olson said.

Later, the couple found a new church home at Bemidji’s First Lutheran Church.

“We have been immersed into the church,” Olson said. “Not just accepted, but embraced.”

The Olsons were among about 20 people who gathered Monday morning at First Lutheran Church for a discussion with the Rev. Joretta Marshall on “Engaging Congregations on Gender, Sexuality and Justice.”

Monday’s “coffee and conversation” session was a continuation from a speech Marshall gave Sunday evening as the keynote speaker during worship at United Methodist Church. Then, she talked about congregation readiness, hospitality and courage.

Both events were part of the third annual Respect Awareness Week sponsored by the Respect Awareness Project of Servant Hearts. The theme for the week is “Rooted in Faith: God’s Amazing Faith Embraces ALL People.”

Respect Awareness Week concludes at 6:30 tonight at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 1800 Irvine Ave. NW, with a premiere showing of “Love Free or Die,” a Sundance Film Festival-winning documentary on Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in the U.S.

Marshall, the executive vice president and dean at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, works with churches and communities on their readiness to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer (GLBTQ) people.  

“Each church and each community has to figure out how it wants to attend to these issues,” Marshall said. “It’s not one size fits all.”

Marshall said there are, generally, four common positions that churches take when considering the GLBTQ community.

On one side of the spectrum are churches that believe anything but heterosexuality is wrong. Any feeling of attraction to a person of the same sex is human sin.

The next group is composed of churches that equate homosexuality to a disease. Same-sex attraction – the impulse – is regarded as a human reality for that individual.

“The role of God would be the same as if someone was born with Down’s syndrome,” Marshall said in explaining how these churches might view the issue.

The third group acknowledges that God’s creations are diverse. While church members may not understand the feelings of same-sex attraction, they value the diversity.

“It’s not a disease and it’s not a sin,” Marshall said as an illustration. “(They) are human beings who add diversity to our world.”

The fourth group loves diversity. Marshall said this group is not only open and welcoming to the GLBTQ community but wants to learn about diversity from those people.

Marshall said people, and churches as well, meander through all four groups. A church itself might be open and affirming to all people but have individual members in all four positions.

“Nobody ever lives in one (position) alone,” Marshall said.

The benefit from coming together to examine, discuss and challenge all of the positions is that people learn from one another, she said.

“I encourage churches to take a stand about where they stand,” Marshall said.

Jim Bensen recalled some old archives uncovered at a country church as the congregation planned for its 100th anniversary.

The archives, he said, told of how the church was founded by 12 Christian Norwegians and three Swedes.

Labels can be tough to overcome, he noted.

Marshall agreed that language can be key in presenting a welcoming atmosphere.

She told of how she and her partner once tried a new church. Marshall initially was encouraged, but when she went to fill in the pew pad, there were just two options: single or married?

She suggested churches consider their word choices not only in pew pads, but also on the placards on restroom doors.

“We ought not to make people work so hard to feel welcome,” she said.

Olson embarked on a period of self-discovery about three and a half years ago as she struggled with depression. When she came upon the term transgendered, she recognized herself in it, but it took her about a year to accept it.

Olson began presenting herself fulltime as a woman on July 4, 2010.

“My experience in this community has been very benevolent,” she said, noting that she and Karen still have close friendships with several people from their former church.

Olson, in looking for a new church home, said she spent several months examining different churches and their core beliefs.

When she approached the interim pastor at First Lutheran, Lee Yarger, he told her to come on down to the church, to try it out.

So she did, initially choosing to go alone. Months later, Karen joined her.

The two became official members last December.

“I really don’t know how many people in this church know who I am, but it doesn’t matter,” Olson said. “This is a great place to be.”

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Bethany Wesley
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