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Roxane B. Salonen, Published July 05 2013

Finding a good fit: Plymouth Congregational pastor brings a bit of the South to Fargo

Fargo -- Small things often make a place a home. In the case of the Rev. Grace Murray, one of them happened to be chicken gizzards.

Shortly after moving here last fall, and upon stopping by the meat counter at Hornbacher’s, Murray knew she’d found a haven.

To her dismay, the delicacy hadn’t been touted in her previous residence of Massachusetts.

“In the South, you can get chicken gizzards and livers anywhere,” said the North Carolina native, now pastor at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Fargo. “I was so excited to find them here.”

But even before the gizzards discovery, Murray was sold on Fargo upon seeing it lit up during her interview for her post.

“I was struck by the beauty of Broadway at night. I almost didn’t care what the church looked like. I just wanted to live in a town where Broadway looked like that,” she said. “I think Fargo just has a real hospitable edge to it, and to me, it is more like the South than being in New England, and in all the good ways.”

Murray’s congregants are finding her a fitting and warm presence, too.

Debbie Olson of Fargo discovered the church about the time Murray assumed her new role. As a visitor, she was struck by the pastor’s ready welcoming.

“Her sermons are also very thought-provoking,” Olson said. “And you can tell she’s got the gift – that she was called to be a minister.”

Longtime member Walt Meidinger said he enjoys how Murray seeks input from her flock. “She’s also got a great sense of humor. She makes fun of herself quite often,” he said. “It’s like she’s one of us.”

Early formation

Murray’s desire not to alienate herself from those she’s leading was prompted at an early age. At 16, after being repeatedly berated by a pastor who believed teens had ruined society, she responded with a public rebellion.

“I was going to make it my last visit to church, so I wore jeans at a time you didn’t do that,” she said. “I sat in the front row and put my feet up on the pew. I decided never to darken the door of the church again. It was my goodbye, and it was very intentional.”

Though leaving church, she said, she wasn’t leaving God.

“After I had my first child, that little tug came back,” she said. “There’s always something that pulls you back home.”

A small Methodist church in the neighborhood of her and her first husband’s new North Carolina residence did it. “There certainly was no excuse (that) it was too much trouble getting to church. So we started going there, and it got us back.”

A few years after bearing her second of two children, Elizabeth Dill, Murray began discerning a call to ministry.

She’d been working as a county public health investigator, helping lead people with sexually transmitted diseases to testing and treatment, when Murray recognized a possible calling.

One of her female clients of the time, a woman with HIV, became one of her mentors, teaching her how to pray during a visit. “The funny thing is, the folks who sent me out thought I was going out to teach her something.”

She said the decision to go into ministry came mostly as a gnawing that God had something more for her to do.

Murray joined a nine-month Bible study that included reflection on each participant’s calling within the church. By the end of the study, each shared impressions of one another’s gifts, and those attributed to her all pointed to pastoral ministry.

“My friends at public health, even though I thought they’d think I was too cynical to be a pastor, admitted they’d seen it, too. So it was pretty clear,” Murray said. “My former husband saw it, too. What he didn’t see was his life as a pastor’s spouse.”

New direction

Murray applied for and was accepted at seminary at Duke University in Durham, N.C., but a family issue drew her back home for a year. Those months turning inward provided a chance for her to serve her family and heal from her recent divorce.

“Once that year was over, I knew (seminary) was where I was supposed to go,” she said.

During her last semester, she met her future husband, Paul, through an online dating service. She said he’s been extremely supportive of her ministry.

“One of the joys of my life is to be in the pulpit, and the other is to be with people when they most need God to be represented to them – when they’re sick, dying, or just don’t know what to do,” she said.

Finding Fargo

Though she’s been preaching for 14 years, Murray was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 2005, with her Fargo “call” being her second paid ministry job.

“I cast a wide net because I don’t know where God wants me to be,” she said, noting that she wasn’t guessing the net would land in the Midwest. But so far, she loves it.

“This is a small church, but they have such a big heart,” she said.

One of her first big projects was calling everyone together for a day of prayer to discern the church’s direction.

“We looked at characteristics of small, strong congregations, and then named what we offer best,” she said, noting that three main goals came into view: worship, giving and growing a sense of community.

“Everyone brainstormed while I went into the kitchen and washed coffee cups,” she said. “After that day, people said they wanted to do it again.”

One of Plymouth’s greatest strengths, she said, is its openness to others. “I don’t think there’s a person who would walk in and, for the most part, not feel welcomed.”

Pointing then to a pin on her shirt shaped like a comma, Murray explained it comes from a quote from the actress Gracie Allen: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

“We wear the comma as a reminder that God is still revealing things to us,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers and we’re not likely to, but God’s still sharing.”

According to Murray, if there’s anything she could change about her new life, it would be of the interior variety.

“I would just like for myself and others – we all get bogged down in the minutiae – to develop a stronger prayer life,” she said. “I raise my hand as being the top person who needs to do that.”

For Olson, it means everything to have a leader like Murray. Though she grew up going to church every Sunday, for a time she wandered away.

“There’s a blessed assurance about her,” Olson said. “Being a new member here, I want to go to church on Sunday again, and it’s because of her and the congregation.”

Readers can reach Roxane B. Salonen at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com