Minneapolis church provides comfort for LGBT community
by Hannah Wolf, Cara McClain, and Emma Wheatley
Lounging on the red cushion of a pew in the sanctuary, a grey cat represents the community that fills these pews every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. The New Harmony congregation at the Wesley United Methodist Church on 101 East Grant Street is welcoming to the gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual community in Minneapolis, and pastor Greg Renstrom believes that this cat is a symbol of the church’s goal.
“She’s a symbol of what we’re trying to do here, to be inclusive,” Renstrom said. “She was a stray, and no one was able to keep her at the rec center, so we decided to give her a home.”
This once-stray cat now lives in the sanctuary of the United Methodist Church, and often joins the services there with other guests.
Built in 1891, the stone building has had both religious and architectural importance. The original congregation worshiped there for almost 150 years, and the “Akron style” sanctuary with stained glass windows and potential for expansion was innovative for it’s time.
However, in 2010, the building was voted as the most endangered historic building by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. After the past congregation had declined, the building was essentially empty for a year.
“The congregation had died, there was no functioning congregation here,” Renstrom said. “For a dollar a year, I became the pastor of a new church that is largely focusing on Minneapolis’s LGBT and Ally community.”
At the age of 64, Renstrom came out of retirement to begin the New Harmony congregation, centered out of the United Methodist Church.
“It has tremendous sense of purpose to me personally to give back to friends that happen to be gay and lesbian,” Renstrom said. “we just have to succeed. we cant allow ourselves to fail because too many people are counting on what we’re doing. It’s both a burden and a blessing.”
In order to keep the building up and running, Renstrom has found ways to provide funding.
“In order to save the building from the wrecking crew, we’re starting a foundation to pay the bills,” Renstrom said. “They’re going to operate the building and the congregation is going to be a tennant of the center.”
With 40 to 50 people coming to the New Harmony congregation during the course of the week, Renstrom recognizes how he needs to focus his church to keep people returning and to gain new followers.
“Right now, were doing whatever we can through worship,” Renstrom said. “The single most encouraging thing we can do is to have uplifting, inspiring, encouraging services. That’s why we have 4 services a week. People are coming back constantly. One of the most encouraging things that is happening is that were building a base of people that are returning.”
And although the New Harmony Church is LGBT focused, Renstrom seeks a congregation that is still balanced.
“My goal for every service that we’re together for is that there will be 50 percent LGBT and 50 percent straight allies, supportive of the gay and lesbian community,” Renstrom said. “Last Sunday it was 60 percent, 40 percent. That was incredibly encouraging.”
With two musicians on staff, Renstrom says his congregation focuses on music to keep the services encouraging and uplifting. One musician, who plays for their Thursday night and Sunday morning services, is a new age jazz musician, and, according to Renstrom, “absolutely wonderful.” The other musician who plays for their Saturday services is more of a classic, Dave Brubeck jazz player.
We really focus on jazz because its a common denominator among generations as well as origins and orientations,” Renstrom said.
Renstrom also believes that his church should be religiously tolerant.
“Dealing with other denominations and reverencing other traditions is really important to me,” Renstrom said.
According to Renstrom, Thursday night services are ones that reverences and respects other traditions, such as Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and others. Their readings are taken from secular literature, and their speakers are not necessarily people who are pastors or ministers. Renstrom says the Sunday services are much more traditionally Christian worship.
During Gay Pride Week this summer, Renstrom performed 6 same-sex blessings on June 25, all in public parks around Minneapolis.
“It’s a classic David and Goliath story.” Renstrom said. “A tiny little group is taking on a huge issue and saying ‘this is not right.’”
However, Renstrom’s same-sex blessings did not settle so well with United Methodist Church leaders.
“It’s been really interesting because I’m up on disciplinary charges,” Renstrom said. “A formal complaint was lodged against me. It was televised, so a number of people hit the roof. Many of our church leaders in Minnesota are caught in a very difficult position because personally they reflect values that affirm what I’m doing, but they are part of a structure that says we have to administer rules and regulations. And right now, the rules and regulations in the United Methodist Church say you cant do this.”
In fact, this controversy gained national attention. In early July, Renstrom said there were six references to the New Harmony congregation in newspapers across the country because of what they were trying to do for the LGBT community.
According to Renstrom, though, this wasn’t about the media attention he received.
“I did the same-sex blessings as part of the church’s ministry, not to gain publicity,” Renstrom said. “It’s something i believe in. But it gained a lot of publicity because it hasn’t happened in Minneapolis in a while.”
However, Renstrom says the reaction have not been all negative.
“The response has been more than mixed because more people have been supportive than negative,” Renstrom said.
For the 2012 election next November, the republican party has pushed a constitutional amendment in Minnesota that states marriage can only be between a male and a female.
And as former president of the Minnesota Council of Churches, Renstrom tries to speak on behalf of LGBT concerns.
“It’s just a slap in the face to not only every gay and lesbian in the state, but siblings, parents, grandparents, colleagues, neighbors, and friends.”
According to Renstrom, 31 states have already approved similar legislation. However, Renstrom still believes there is potential to stop it.
“We have to defeat what is being proposed,” Renstrom said. “It gets a little bit tricky, but we may be the first state to pull it off.”
Sticking to Beliefs:
Amidst some of the controversial events surrounding the LGBT community in Minneapolis, Renstrom believes it is important to remember what his congregation is all about.
“One of the things our church is trying to do is to remember as followers of Jesus, we have basic values,” Renstrom said. “Our church’s values are very simple: justice, kindness, faithfulness, and inclusiveness. If were going to take kindness seriously, we cant be belligerent, hostile, or demeaning of people on the other side. We have to model values and characteristics that are positive and healthy and helpful.”
And ultimately, Renstrom’s goal is to be a helpful source to others.
“Our goal is that people will feel stronger better more hopeful, better equipped to deal with life when they leave then when they came,” Renstrom said.