LITTLEFORK, Minn. — Ross Murray remembers growing up in a small Minnesota town in the 1980s and ’90s where he was bullied and called “gay” before he was even fully comfortable identifying as gay.
“I was pretty scared to death to tell anyone,” says the Littlefork native. “It was not part of the culture then. ‘Gay’ was a slur.”
He didn’t come out until after high school, and when he did, he was fortunate enough to have parents and a pastor that were accepting.
Now 44 and a deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and director of programs for Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Murray wants to help more congregations be understanding and accepting of LGBTQ youth in the church.
He recently published the book “Made, Known, Loved: Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Youth Ministry,” which is available to buy online at www.madeknownloved.org.
Murray will hold a virtual reading with Zandbroz Variety and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Fargo at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 13, to talk about the book and its topics. The event will be available through Facebook (search "Ross Murray" under "Events").
“Today’s environment is so different, but life can still be difficult as an LGBTQ person. I want the church to be an ally,” he says from his home in New York.
Murray points to St. Mark’s as just such a congregation.
“There are not a lot of accepting congregations,” says the Rev. Joe Larson, pastor at St. Mark’s, a church that for 30 years has been Reconciling in Christ, meaning it is welcoming and affirming of all, regardless of gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation.
“I know how difficult it can be for young people struggling with their identity,” says Larson, who was still closeted while attending seminary.
After the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly allowed pastors in same-sex relationships, he was ordained and came to St. Mark’s in 2016, his first calling, becoming the first openly gay ELCA pastor in North Dakota.
Larson and his parishioners livestreamed two chats with Murray in April talking about the book.
“It’s not a how-to book, it’s about finding what works in your congregation," Larson says.
For his part, he will sometimes discuss LGBTQ issues in his sermons or share his experiences as a gay man, such as talking about coming out.
Larson says churches can use inclusive language. Congregants can be listening and supportive as young members come out and supportive of transgender youth who change their names.
The biggest thing about making LGBTQ youth feel at home in the church, Larson says, is to seek input from young people.
“Anytime you’re working with a marginalized group, you want to get input from them,” he says. “It’s not easy to do, because a lot of people still believe that being gay is a sin.”
Murray can relate to a teen’s feeling of isolation.
“Being gay and from a small town, those two pieces of my identity make me unique,” he says.
He made a name for himself in the early 2000s when he founded the Naming Project, a summer camp in central Minnesota for LGBTQ Christians. The retreat and its campers were the subject of the 2006 documentary “Camp Out.”
After the success of the camps, pastors around the country reached out to Murray, asking how they could better serve young LGBTQ parishioners.
“We’re sharing what we learned so congregations can be safe to LGBTQ kids and let them know they are loved,” Murray says.
He started writing a book years ago, but two years ago put things in gear.
In some ways, it couldn’t have come out at a better time as a number of states are grappling with bills that limit on which team transgender student-athletes can play.
“Christ is calling us to defend the marginalized and the youth and those that don’t have recourse,” he says. “How do we accept youth in our church?”
Accepting the LGBTQ community extends beyond the church walls, he says.
“LGBTQ people can be recipients of our ministry, even if they’re not in our congregation,” Murray says.
“It’s important for them to know God loves them just as they are,” Larson says. “God created them just as they are.”