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Anna G. Larson, Published September 26 2013

Inside Out Faith: Events aimed at welcoming all to church

If you go

What: Jennifer Knapp’s “Inside Out Faith” event and concert

When and where: Inside Out Faith will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at North Dakota State University’s Prairie Rose Room in the Memorial Union.

A regular concert is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Studio 222 in downtown Fargo.

Info: Admission is free for the Inside Out Faith event at NDSU. The cost of tickets for Saturday’s concert is $10 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased for $10 plus applicable fees via Tickets 300.

For more information about The Gathering, visit www.facebook.com/gatheringfm or http://gatheringfm.org

FARGO – Folk rocker Jennifer Knapp can’t remember the last time she was in Fargo. It’s been at least 15 years, but she won’t forget her visit this time.

The former Christian music artist is in town for three performances this week as part of First United Methodist Church’s efforts to encourage conversation about welcoming all people into the church, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Knapp publicly came out as a lesbian in 2010, and since then, she’s been sharing her story as a gay person of faith.

“It’s not that somebody finds out they’re gay and immediately loses their faith. We still go on, and our sexual orientation is no different than heterosexual orientation. It’s just a part of who we are,” Knapp says. “People want to get married, people go to church. We have dreams and goals that are the same as everybody else.”

Through her “Inside Out Faith” conversations and musical performances, Knapp discusses the judgment, rejection and also the positive experiences she’s faced since her public coming out.

“The whole coming-out process has its own kind of culture, and the church on top of it has another culture, an extremely negative space for people to have that experience,” Knapp says. “What we’re missing are the positive and affirming stories of churches that are actually being affirmative, that are open and inclusive of LGBTs and the LGBT people who’ve been able to claim their faith without hesitation. I basically just tell a little about that story.”

The Rev. Cody Schuler says Knapp represents the kind of church he wants Fargo’s First United Methodist to be – welcoming of all people. He’s spearheaded the startup of a new faith community called The Gathering in hopes of building an “authentic faith community.”

“Many people have been hurt by the church or had bad experiences. We want to create a place where they give church a second chance, a space where they can heal,” he says. “I have been hurt by the church myself and know how important it is to rediscover that God’s love is bigger than how God’s people sometimes behave.”

Constructive conversation about LGBT people, in particular, is lacking in the church, Schuler says, adding that statistics show that young people are more accepting of LGBT persons than older generations.

“It is an issue that is not going away,” he says. “Jesus’ teachings are rooted in love, yet the church often struggles to demonstrate love when it comes to welcoming people. I’d hope having this conversation would help us raise the bar on our own behavior as followers of Jesus.”

Although The Gathering is affiliated with First United Methodist Church, Schuler says he doesn’t want denomination to be a barrier. Instead, people of diverse spiritual traditions or no religious experience can find a place to call home while trying to connect to God.

“My hope is that this creates a richer community experience than one might find in more typical churches,” Schuler says.

Kay Weiss, of Fargo, found a spiritual home in The Gathering. The 30-year-old pastor’s daughter was raised Lutheran but never felt connected to the church. She eventually distanced herself and explored other religions.

One Sunday a few years ago, Weiss attended a service at First United Methodist Church. Schuler’s message about treating others with a loving heart sparked her interest.

“Since finding The Gathering, or rather, since it found me, I feel like I’m not alone in questioning and searching for answers,” she says. “I’m not a bad person for thinking some of the biblical stories are nonsensical and outdated. And I’m not alone when it comes to thinking that everyone deserves to be treated kindly and justly, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation.”

Across the river, a church has been welcoming LGBT people into its congregation for eight years. First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moorhead adopted an “open and affirming” statement in 2005. The church participates in Pride events, and the pastors have performed same-sex marriages.

Although North Dakota hasn’t legalized same-sex marriage, Schuler says that as a pastor, he cares for and nurtures various peoples’ relationships regardless of marital status or sexual orientation.

“I would expect our new faith community to do the same,” he says.

First Congregational United Church of Christ has steadily grown since adopting the open and affirming statement. A decade ago, membership was at 287; last year, it’d grown to 334.

“We’re a fairly small church, but we are adding membership, diverse membership,” says church moderator and member Hope Ray.

LGBT inclusion is a meaningful issue to Ray and First Congregational United Church of Christ.

“Sometimes people don’t realize how important it can be to someone who is LGBT to actually have a statement, an affirmation by the church. That really sends a strong message,” Ray says.

Adopting the affirmative statement wasn’t without controversy, she says, and it’s an ongoing conversation.

“It’s something that people have to get their heads wrapped around. I think changes will come more quickly now than in past years,” Ray says. “It’s wonderful to see other churches doing this. There doesn’t have to be that dichotomy of gay or Christian, an ally or Christian.”

The church’s interim pastor, the Rev. Zoe Kuester, is hopeful that more faith communities will move toward being inclusive of LGBT people.

“It’s something that people have taken up, talked about, explored and learned about. The more you know, the more people are likely to open their doors to everybody,” she says.

Knapp urges people to be patient with change, saying that understanding and hearing the stories of LGBT people of faith is a slow, patient process.

“The social taboo is lessening, and Inside Out Faith is a model of being able to tell the story,” she says, adding that Fargo-Moorhead is lucky to have a passionate person trying to create a community-wide conversation of acceptance.

“It’s guys like Cody who really help effect change,” Knapp says. “He just happened to find me and ask to share in the journey.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525