Iron Range church builds a path to acceptance
The meeting room at Messiah Lutheran Church is a sacred place for the parishioners there. It's where the members of the Mountain Iron church have had 11 years of often emotional discussion on the direction of the church, especially when it comes ...
The meeting room at Messiah Lutheran Church is a sacred place for the parishioners there. It's where the members of the Mountain Iron church have had 11 years of often emotional discussion on the direction of the church, especially when it comes to inclusion.
On Thursday, members met again to talk about one arduous but satisfying journey that will be celebrated today in the installation of Ellen Taube as an assistant pastor.
Taube also will be formally reinstated as an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America minister after being stripped of her title during the church's decades-long struggle to come to terms with accepting gay people into its leadership.
Taube gave up her job as a minister in 2001 when she entered into a relationship with a woman. She soon found herself in Virginia working as a pharmacist and walking into Messiah in search of a church.
What she found was a progressive community of people aching to resolve the sexuality conflict in its church.
"The reality is that God calls different people," Messiah pastor Kristin Foster said. "It's not an issue here. It's about people."
And it's about a building as well. When lightning struck the former church building and fire destroyed it in summer 1998, the congregation gasped at the loss of the only building it had ever known. But a burst of local and national volunteering and fundraising had a new $1 million church up and running three years later along U.S. Highway 169.
For Foster, it was a chance to reform the direction of the church. Parishioners couldn't help but move in that direction.
All the outside help to build the church opened their eyes, said Claudia Skalko.
"We've gone beyond ourselves. We have a whole new world of people."
Joining the fray
The question of acceptance within the church began with a committee debating the writing of a letter of support for a church in St. Paul. In 2001, Anita Hill, living openly as a lesbian, was ordained at St. Paul-
Reformation Lutheran. It was a defiant act of "ecclesiastical disobedience" of ELCA tenants and became a national story about the evolving acceptance of gay people in churches across the country.
Ellen Taube had quietly become a regular face at Messiah, volunteering in education and music activities.
By 2002, the ELCA had set a course on open talk about sexuality and Messiah was more than ready for the discussion.
As Foster made plans for a three-month sabbatical in 2003, thoughts turned to Taube sitting in her place. But as part of the new openness about sexuality, Taube had written to a former bishop about her sexuality and she was removed from the clergy roster.
The congregation fought hard to get special permission to allow Taube to serve in Foster's place. It won.
That set a course for Taube to be named an official lay pastoral assistant as the church began to bring people from outside of former ministry to lend their talents to church life.
Dean Johnson also was named an assistant at the time.
"She is a pastor by nature," he said of the congregation's growing affection. "She sees things that need to be done."
By 2005, the church joined an effort to bring stories of sexual orientation into the open. It would lead to a strong welcome statement from the church to include all people, no matter their sexual orientation.
"It's not only our church," Gary Skalko said. The mayor of Mountain Iron said there was a long history of tradition at the church -- his grandparents always called it the Finnish church -- and it was time to move with the times.
"For me, it's a moral thing," he said. It's what led him to urge the City Council to pass a resolution against the marriage amendment ballot question in this fall's general election.
"Change can bring controversy," he said. "You deal with that and follow your heart. It's about people."
It was a six-year struggle to come up with the welcome statement -- it was formally adopted by the church in early 2009. Eight months later, the ELCA changed its exclusionary policy regarding gay clergy.
"If you believe, you believe," Annette Peri said. "This is such a no-brainer. If it is what is right, why should it take so long."
Claudia Skalko joined Peri in her frustration for the change in the church and the ELCA.
"We wanted it done now," she said with a laugh. That's her personality. "I knew this was the right thing to do."
But the deliberation and delay meant everyone at the church felt they had a say.
"Not everyone was on board," Jerry Kujala said.
"We did not leave people behind," Johnson said.
The process meant that unlike many churches across the country, Messiah did not lose members in protest to the acceptance policies.
Reeling her in
Taube applied to be reinstated, and by 2011 the church was ready to call on her to work as a minister. But ELCA rules required a paid assistant position.
Foster thought members would never buy into the request for donations of up to $10,000 to pay for the position after years of payments on the new building. The appeal for money began this summer and it was fulfilled in three weeks.
"I am so proud and amazed with our congregation," Foster said.
Sue Benassi is a new member of Messiah. She came to the church after the fire and new building. Like many who move to the Iron Range, feeling like an outsider can linger for a long time.
"When we came here we felt like we were coming home," she said.
She praised Foster, saying she projects the feeling that "we matter. And Ellen compliments that."
Foster revels in watching her members take on challenges. The fire. The rebuilding. The new age of welcoming everyone.
"Being in a church like this is an adventure," she said. The nodding heads in the sacred meeting room would seem to indicate a congregation ready to take on more.
They said taking time to celebrate their own resolve and the Taube journey Sunday is important. Anita Hill will be there along with the head of the ELCA's Northeastern Minnesota Synod. More than a decade of anguish and then reconciliation will be bookended.
"It's like a wrong being righted," Peri said.