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Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald , Published June 24 2012

Grand Forks church selling building to Muslim group

GRAND FORKS - The city's most liberal Protestant Christian church, the United Church of Christ, is selling its building to a local Muslim group and will continue to share the space on alternate days.

It’s a historic move: Grand Forks has never had an Islamic center with its own building.

Local Muslims, most of them connected to UND, have met for decades for Friday prayers in UND’s Memorial Union and in the Lotus Meditation Center, a private nonprofit group on campus.

Now, a group of Muslims that has been renting the UCC space for the past year for Friday prayers is planning to buy the space, according to UCC Council Chairman Don Medal.

The decision was made a month ago, he said.

The church is at 2122 17th Ave. S., across from Red River High School and down the street from Sharon Lutheran Church.

The UCC congregation, which dates back more than a century, actually has been doing a little better, attendance-wise, the past couple years, said Medal, who has been a member for decades and works at the University of Minnesota, Crookston.

From about 50 people on a Sunday five years ago, it’s nearer 60 now, with younger couples and some children again, he said.

However, as older, more established members have passed on in recent years, younger replacement members tend to have less wealth, meaning the congregation has had to re-appraise its position, he said.

Collecting rent the past year from the Muslim group helped, but wasn’t a long-term answer.

“We went from rentee to renter,” he said. “Budget-wise we could not afford the building and it was much more important to stay together as a congregation and keep the pastor than to keep a material thing like the building.”

Nabil Suleiman, an assistant professor of civil engineering at UND, is a spokesman for the group that has agreed to buy the UCC building. He could not be reached Friday for comment.

One change for UCC members is they have been asked by the Islamic center to leave their shoes at the door before going in for Sunday morning worship, according to Medal.

He said that doesn’t pose any problem and is part of not being the landlord anymore.

There may be other changes, such as the main cross being removed from the sanctuary, he said.

But it’s worth it, he said.

“We felt it was a big plus to have it continue to be a place of worship, versus being torn down and turned into housing,” Medal said. “Or a restaurant.”

An Islamic center differs from a Muslim mosque. A mosque is used only for worship and is generally not open to non-Muslims. Islamic centers often are open to the public and used for community-based events by Muslims and others.

Medal said he expects the congregation to re-evaluate its plans for the longer term in the future.

Mills will continue to pastor the UCC congregation, as well as its yoked parish partner, Zion Congregational UCC in Manvel, N.D., which is about 10 miles north of Grand Forks.

The UCC congregation has been part of the Federated Church for more than 60 years. It and the American Baptist Church in town hooked up after World War II as their numbers dwindled.

Both remained distinct entities but worshipped and worked together, using the church building downtown until the church was replaced with a parking ramp during urban renewal in the late 1960s.

The congregation met at UND and other places, until it erected its building on 17th Avenue in the early 1970s, Medal said.

The UCC is considered the most liberal U.S. Christian denomination. For example, it was the only denomination for a long time that approved of same-sex relationship, including for clergy.

Five years ago, the Federated Church issued a public invitation to gays, lesbians and others to make a point about the “radical hospitality” it saw as part of its mission, Mills said at the time.

But the regional American Baptist organization disagreed with that stance and asked that the Baptist portion of the congregation be dissolved, said Mills.

That happened nearly two years ago and the few remaining Baptists just kept attending the newly named (again) UCC congregation.