Duluth organizations of faith offer a welcoming environment for the LGBTQ+ community

Illustration by Karli Kruse

Illustration by Karli Kruse

For members of the LGBT+ community, finding a place to practice your faith can be thought of as quite the struggle. Historically speaking, faith and the queer community haven’t always gotten along. Coming from the Iron Range, where I practiced my faith on a regular basis while struggling with my own sexuality, I understand this fight first hand.

A float decorated by the  First United Methodist Church . Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy Joanne Coffin-Langdon

A float decorated by the First United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Photo courtesy Joanne Coffin-Langdon

For years I was a Bible Bowl coach, Sunday School teacher, Vacation Bible School volunteer, Church Camp volunteer and so much more. Everything extracurricular that I did was with my church. I loved my church. I still do. However, going to church every Sunday became a struggle. There wasn’t a service where I didn’t hear how sinful same sex relationships are. I began to hate myself and doubted the existence of God. 

As time went on it became increasingly difficult to come to terms with my identity. When I came out, I slowly began to accept myself but in a stark twist of fate, I began to struggle with my religious identity. I craved to find a church that would not only welcome me, but fully embrace me, allowing me to participate in any practices just as any straight individual. I wanted a place I could go that was judgement free, so I decided to do a little research. 

According to Google Maps, there are around 26 known places of worship in the city of Duluth. The religions in this bracket include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. I compiled a list of every place of worship and contacted someone who could help me find the information I wanted. Around 11 have officially confirmed that their religious organizations are welcoming and involving, open and affirming to everyone. Others did not respond.

“Peace United Church of Christ has been an open and affirming church for many years,” Gary J. Boelhower, professor of theology and religious studies at The College of St. Scholastica and Lay Moderator of Peace United said. “Our lead pastor, Kathy Nelson, has been celebrating weddings for gay and lesbian couples for many years, even before the legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota.”

When I initially thought about doing this article I mentally prepared myself for negative comments towards my way of life. I’ve spent a majority of my post pubescent years hiding a part of myself that I thought would condemn me to Hell. I learned to hate myself but I did not learn to fall in love with men. Learning that churches in Duluth recognized this before it was “cool” was exciting to hear. 

Gary J. Boelhower,  professor of theology and religious studies at The College of St. Scholastica and Lay Moderator of Peace United. Photo courtesy Gary J. Boelhower

Gary J. Boelhower, professor of theology and religious studies at The College of St. Scholastica and Lay Moderator of Peace United. Photo courtesy Gary J. Boelhower

According to Boelhower, Peace United, Pilgrim Congregational, Gloria Dei Lutheran and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation have held an annual conference about welcoming members of the LGBT+ community for about 10 years.

“Peace Church has welcomed, with open arms and radical hospitality, many in the LGBTQI community over the years,” Boelhower said. “My spouse, Gary Anderson, and I celebrated our sacred wedding at Peace two years before the legalization of same-sex marriage.”

As I progressed forward in my research for this article, my heavy heart was lifted slightly higher after every positive comment came to my attention.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation (UUC) is also welcoming to all and encourages involvement in numerous groups and activities held by the church.

“Our congregation is certainly welcoming and also very open and affirming,” Kathy Stinnett, Congregational Administrator for the UUC, said. “We have many long-time and newer members who are LGBTQ+ community as well as members of our faith community at UUCD.”

According to Stinnett, UCC currently has a group that is constantly working on ways to inform others about this “very open and affirming faith family.” 

“Many of our members are also supporters of the local activities of the greater community in Duluth and Superior and are frequently photographed by the news media when there is a march or an event to support LGBTQ+,” Stinnett said. “I can honestly report that we have several leaders in the LGBTQ+ community who are also members at UUCD.” 

Rabbi David Steinberg  of Temple Israel. Photo by Deb Carroll

Rabbi David Steinberg of Temple Israel. Photo by Deb Carroll

Other places, such as Temple Israel, also welcome people of the LGBT+ community.

“I would think that our congregation is both,” Rabbi for Temple Israel, David Steinberg said. “For what it's worth, I am openly gay and this is my ninth year as rabbi here. My predecessor, Rabbi Amy Bernstein, was fully out as a lesbian during her years as rabbi here [from] 1996-2010.”

When I heard this, I was stunned. Growing up on the Range it was rare to hear of a woman pastor, let alone an openly gay rabbi. This filled my heart with so much pride and hope. Finding a religion that would accept everything about me, everything that I previously thought of as a sin, seemed like more of a possibility. Similar to myself, Rabbi Steinberg came out in his late 20s. 

“In itself, [being openly gay] was a religious turning point for me,” Rabbi Steinberg said. “To sum it up, I basically came to the realization that since God had created me gay it would be like spitting at God to pretend to be anything other than who I was.”

 It wasn’t long after that that Steinberg decided to go to rabbinical school. 

“My seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, had been admitting openly gay and lesbian students for several years before I applied.”

Rabbi Steinberg was ordained in 1997 and has been open about his sexuality throughout his entire career.

Joanne Coffin-Langdon , UMD’s United Campus Ministries Minister. Photo courtesy Joanne Coffin-Langdon

Joanne Coffin-Langdon, UMD’s United Campus Ministries Minister. Photo courtesy Joanne Coffin-Langdon

UMD also hosts a number of religious organizations, from Newman Catholic Ministries, Muslim Student Association, Minnesota Hillel at UMD, CRU at UMD, Lutheran Campus Ministries to a support social, called Coffee and Christ, every thursday by Joanne Coffin-Langdon, UMD’s United Campus Ministries Minister to assist those who identify as queer and sometimes struggle with their faith.

I reached out to potential sources and was invited to join UMD’s coffee and Christ, held every Thursday by Coffin-Langdon. It felt so freeing to share my story with others who understood me. Every member constantly struggles with their sexuality and faith. Coffin-Langdon has been married to her partner, Pastor Cynthia Coffin-Langdon of the Hillside United Methodist Church, for over 10 years. They have nine children together.

“It is super important to have a place that not only accepts you but celebrates you,” Coffin-Langdon said. “There will be a lot of churches that say they want to accept you but still want you to change.”

Going to Coffee and Christ really allowed me to breathe freely. Being around people who truly understood what I was going through was such an enjoyable experience. I felt like I began to find that place of faith that I have been needing since coming out. Hearing Coffin-Langdon tell me that I wasn’t sinful, one of the pivotal parts of my existence wasn’t sinful, made me finally feel content with myself. I met a handful of wonderful people there, one of them being Jana Picotte who is looking at a future career in faith herself.

“Growing up I always thought it was so weird that people obsessed over the crossover of sexuality and faith,” Picotte said. “Whether it was just the idea of sex before marriage, or homosexuality someone always has an opinion on what they think God would think. It’s as if some people feel shame about their own thoughts, or urges, or feelings and need to put shame unto others.”

First United Methodist Church , located on 230 E Skyline Pkwy in Duluth. Photo courtesy Joanne Coffin-Langdon

First United Methodist Church, located on 230 E Skyline Pkwy in Duluth. Photo courtesy Joanne Coffin-Langdon

When Picotte came out she was ashamed, but only towards those in her family who were Catholic and those she had once heard question the validity of gay marriage. 

“I have learned over the years that true family will stick with you no matter what and love you like Jesus would want,” Picotte said. “Shame has an origin and it is not God. Adam and Eve had no shame until they listened to a snake. God is not ashamed of her creations. God doesn’t make mistakes. My sexuality’s mine, and I know I am loved unconditionally.”

Newman Catholic Campus Ministry, however, isn’t exactly as open to the LGBT+ community as other religious organizations on campus due to strict religious views and practices.  

“When it comes to all people on campus, students, faculty and staff, the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry is not merely ‘welcoming’ to all, but we want to be a place where every person is invited,” Father Mike Schmitz said. “We want to create a community in which each person is known, loved, and cared for. This does not exclude anyone, but is an invitation that is literally extended to all people who are part of the collegiate community in the Duluth area.”

Father Mike Schmitz of the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry. Photo courtesy  UMD Newman

Father Mike Schmitz of the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry. Photo courtesy UMD Newman

According to Father Schmitz, Newman Catholic Campus Ministry hopes to create an atmosphere that is not disruptive. The organization wishes to unite people from whatever background in “the love that God has for them in Christ.”  

“We all show up with our own stories and our own experiences, but realize that we are united in our need for God and God’s personal love for each person, in the midst of their stories and experiences,” Father Schmitz said.

Father Schmitz stated that there are many who would identify as LGBTQ+ who have been part of the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry community. 

I’d like to clearly state that I believe every person has the right to practice their beliefs. We are supposed to live in a free society that permits people to enjoy their best life as long as they aren’t intentionally harming others. 

I can understand why the Catholic faith doesn’t condone homosexuality, but it still stings to know that there are those out there that see a pivotal portion of myself as a sin. However, it’s extremely liberating to see that other denominations don’t practice their faith in the same manner. They see everyone as God created and that was genuinely rewarding and so heartwarming to hear.

Another place of faith that welcomes all is Lake Superior Interfaith.

“Our congregation is most definitely open and affirming, and has been for some time,” Jasmine Phoenix, Twice Past President for Lake Superior Interfaith said.

The Pilgrim Congregational Church has been open and affirming for nearly two decades and proudly employs a number of members who are a part of the LGBT+ community. 

The Pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, Karen Schuder, felt remorseful for those, like myself, who received a negative message about a pivotal part of their identity growing up in a religious community.

“I’m so sorry that you have heard that message,” Schuder said. “I’m so sorry that God’s love and Grace has been confined to a narrow perception of what’s right and wrong. The blessing of who you are is a gift to the world.” 

Hope United Methodist Church located at 301 W Saint Marie St., across from UMD. Photo courtesy reverend Sarah Lawton

Hope United Methodist Church located at 301 W Saint Marie St., across from UMD. Photo courtesy reverend Sarah Lawton

Another pastor who felt it necessary to apologize for the mistreatment of others was reverend Sarah Lawton of Hope United Methodist Church, across from UMD. In a conversation she expressed deep remorse in regards to any negative message received by those in the LGBT+ community. 

“God loves you,” Lawton said. “You are perfect.”

These words were the complete opposite when compared to the phrases that have been echoing in my head for over a decade. 

Lawton expressed that there are communities and places of care out in the world and urges those who have ever felt like they don’t belong to find them.

“If it’s in a church, I’m so thankful,” Lawton said. “If it’s not in a church, I’m so thankful. Just find people who support you and love you for who you are.”

When it came to my religious peers and my childhood churches, for some time I felt as if God hated me because I was a sinful being. Then that self hatred began to morph into religious doubt. I almost lost my faith along the way as I often pondered on how God could hate someone they created. In my efforts to find places of worship for others in my situation, I found something I thought was long gone: hope and faith. 

Love is love and people should never feel ashamed of an emotion that I believe was gifted to us by God. 

VoicesZack Benz