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Local church declares: Whatever your sexual orientation, welcome

From left to right are the Rev. Janet Ellinger, Joan Schneider and Paul Shepherd. They represent part of a group of the United Methodist Church's congregation who supported a proposal to have the church become a "reconciling congregation." <i>Vera Roy-Stoeberl photo</i>

Earlier this year members of River Falls United Methodist Church voted to become a "reconciling congregation."

The resulting declaration welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) people to participate openly in the activities of the church.

As the Rev. Janet Ellinger puts it, "The most vocal and numerous of public Christian voices has judged gay people as sinful.

"Our witness is that all people are sacred children of a loving God: Beautiful people, each one valued for who she or he is, each one, including GLBT, an equal partner in our ministry."

For Paul Shepherd, "moving from Eau Claire to River Falls, it was exciting to find a church that welcomes GLBT people as a part of its mission. My wife Mara and I thought it great to be a Christian and ally at can be who you are without compartmentalizing."

Shepherd participated in the leadership team of about 20 members that organized the reconciling process.

Euge Isherwood, openly gay and also a member of the leadership team, feels he has "grown through the allowed me to be who I am without hiding."

The process that River Falls United Methodist undertook began more than two years ago.

It ultimately led to an affirmative vote, by a 2-1 margin, by the congregation last February.

Ellinger, Isherwood and Shepherd acknowledged that the process was "long" and at times "painful."

Before the vote there were multiple speakers, lunches, study groups, a film festival and discussions.

Congregation members were also invited to explore their personal questions, struggles and sense of alienation from those with differing views or beliefs.

Nonetheless, "some members," says Ellinger, "remained very opposed" to the philosophy of reconciliation. Some even appealed to higher church authorities to challenge the local church's continuing effort.

To date the church has lost some members but also gained some.

Explains Ellinger: "The bottom line is not the numbers, it's the faithfulness love God with every ounce of your being and love your neighbor. The anonymous Gospel writers give witness to how Jesus crossed all sorts of boundary lines (religious, ethnic, gender, social) to include the one left out."

"We cared about losing members, but went in knowing this might happen," Isherwood said. "I was impressed by allies" and in some instances "surprised by both supportive and unsupportive felt like coming out."

Added Ellinger: "We are relishing a mature joy at the River Falls United Methodist Church, matured through struggling together, respecting one another, seeking spiritual guidance, worshiping together and realizing that the wideness of this circle of love must include those who aren't quite comfortable with such a big circle.

"But the concern is not with our own comfort, but with our effort to be faithful to Gospel. It is our calling.

"Some churches don't ask, some reach a premature decision at high levels without going through the process with the whole congregation and some, like us, go through a full process."

Among the issues yet to be dealt with by the United Methodist denomination are obstacles to ordination and commitment ceremonies in the church for lesbian and gay couples.

"We want the community to know that we're walking the talk," offers Shepherd.

Ellinger summarized her church's recent soul-searching by saying: "This is the life of a community of faith, to engage in conversation with civility...we are on a compassionate and justice-seeking path. You are welcome to journey with us."