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People of faith: Pastor Jeanine Alexander's career comes full circle at First United Methodist Church

The Rev. Jeanine Alexander raises her arms in prayer during a during a service at First United Methodist Church. The Duluth native recently became the church’s full-time pastor. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Jeanine Alexander shares a high-five with Annie Coffin-Langdon, 3, as Annie’s mother, Cynthia Coffin-Langdon, watches before a recent service at “copper-top church." Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Pastor Jeanine Alexander demonstrates a back scratcher during children’s time at a recent service. The message was how things are often easier if people help one another. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 5
First United Methodist Pastor Jeanine Alexander and her congregation sing a hymn during a recent service. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 5
First United Methodist Church Pastor Jeanine Alexander greets a parishioner with a hug before a recent service. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 5

Just outside the front doors of First United Methodist Church, the Rev. Jeanine Alexander stands ready to hug and chat with each person on their way in.

Inside, church members and guests stop at a table to take a white name tag and scribble on it with a black Sharpie. It's Alexander's fourth Sunday at FUMC, but she's determined to learn names.

After a quick set of announcements, she invites the congregation to stand for the "passing of the peace" with a reminder "to find someone you don't know well to greet first."

For almost two minutes, "Good to see you" and "Hi, my name is" fill the church, as attendees wander the aisles for hugs and handshakes.

For 50 years, the church with the famous green patina has stood 400 feet above Lake Superior and serves as a landmark for Duluthians — who refer to it simply as "copper-top." It's often the first thing sailors see on the hillside en route to Duluth.

For Duluth native Alexander, the "copper-top church" has always served as a spiritual beacon, guiding her life as a pastor.

Alexander felt called to the job while in high school, but she grew up in Duluth's Temple Baptist Church. At that time, women were not allowed to serve as pastors within the Baptist church. So she looked around Duluth. The only woman serving as a pastor in the area was a FUMC diaconal minister named Corinne Gauger, now Van Buren.

"The whole start of my ministry kind of started in this building," Alexander said.

Alexander, 50, attended the University of Minnesota Duluth to study psychology and philosophy. While at UMD, she served as the youth director at Lester Park United Methodist. She has served churches in the Twin Cities since attending seminary at Bethel University.

But after 28 years, returning to Duluth only made sense.

"I always knew I would come back here, that I would want to be with family ... and this is the church I'd want to serve."

Reconciling congregation

Alexander thought her return to Duluth would not occur until FUMC's former pastor, David Bard, retired. But he was instead appointed bishop last year, which left an opening.

"The two were just coming together at the same time," she said.

Cindy Hedlund, an FUMC member for five years and secretary of the Staff Parish Relations Committee, said she could not think of a better fit. The energy and love Alexander brought to the room when she met other committee members proved it, Hedlund said.

"She's not the kind that throws out Bible verses ... she just lives it," Hedlund said. "We want some of that."

As a reconciling congregation, FUMC places an importance on the acceptance and inclusion of minorities, particularly the LGBTQ community. This is at odds with the United Methodist Church as a whole, which prohibits the ordination of LGBTQ ministers, the celebration of same-sex weddings or unions, and the allocation of funds "to promote the acceptance of homosexuality," according to UMC.org. But FUMC's opposition to these rules are no secret; the Reconciling Ministries Network logo — rainbow flames and a contour of the holy cross — is proudly displayed on the FUMC website and throughout the building. Alexander's last church, Minnetonka United Methodist, was also a reconciling congregation.

"That was a good fit for us," Hedlund said.

While FUMC has been a reconciling congregation for years, Alexander has reemphasized its significance in her first few weeks as pastor, according to church member Geoff Bell. He has also noticed Alexander's knack for welcoming and inviting everyone.

"She clearly cares a lot about outreach and making people feel comfortable here," Bell said.

Earlier this year, Alexander won the Denman Award for Reaching New People, Clergy, for her leadership in growing the Minnetonka United Methodist Church.

Alexander said that FUMC is already doing a lot of quality outreach, and she wants to continue that, particularly by ensuring all church events welcome and include the public and placing importance on FUMC's mission. After all, the acceptance and inclusion of minorities helped Alexander find meaning as a pastor.

"It just felt like a fit. The combination of social justice and connection with God is just a profound connection for me," Alexander said.

But the melding of the two brought challenges during her journey into life as a pastor. It forced her to confront her conservative upbringing, she said.

Strike a balance

Alexander said she was raised to believe homosexuality was an unforgivable sin. Acceptance was something she had to develop. While in seminary, she worked with a man in youth ministry who "was so kind and loving and generous and caring." When she learned a few years later that he was gay, it forced her to reexamine her beliefs and become more open-minded, she said.

"It was a difficult thing because at first I thought I had to throw the Bible out," she said.

She also began working at a First Presbyterian Church in White Bear Lake, Minn., where she was able to experience a congregation that placed importance on social justice.

"It enabled me to ask questions, think through my faith for myself and begin to understand God not just because of what people told me was truth," Alexander said. "I began to see much more need for inclusion among all people in the church."

While liberal churches brought new meaning to Alexander's pastoral life, she felt like she needed to reclaim and integrate some of the aspects of her early religious life, too.

"But I realized something was also missing ... I wasn't experiencing God like I had as a child," she said.

She managed to strike a balance between the humanity and divinity of the Bible with the belief that it's inspired by God, she said, and was able to mold new and old.

She studied the context, original language, purpose and history behind the Bible.

In doing so, she said, "I began to reclaim scripture."

That synthesis was strong at FUMC before her arrival, Alexander said, but like the copper structure that Duluthians and sailors use as a landmark, it helped guide her back to serve the church where she first learned about pastoral opportunities for women, and where she plans to build upon their mission of inclusion.

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