An act of faith

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June 20, 2011
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss
Pastor Greg Renstrom’s New Harmony Church is preserving an important piece of the past while looking toward the future.

Built in 1891, the Wesley United Methodist Church at 101 Grant St. E. is a place of both religious and architectural significance. The original congregation worshiped at Wesley for almost 150 years, and the “Akron style” sanctuary with its square shape and potential for expansion was structurally innovative for its time.

And yet, in 2010, the building was listed on the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s list of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places. The original congregation and a second congregation had both disbanded due to declining membership, leaving the building empty for a year. The United Methodist Church had to consider selling the property for development.

Retired pastor Renstrom stepped forward with a plan to rescue the building, but his solution put him at odds with the official position of the United Methodist Church.

“I said why don’t we give it one more shot, and I would be honored to come out of retirement and serve for a dollar a year as the organizing pastor of a new church that would be the only neighborhood congregation in Loring Park,” said Renstrom. “And I said I want to focus on the LGBT community in Loring Park and in the Twin Cities.”

The new congregation, known as the New Harmony Church: A New Spiritual Community at Historic Wesley, has been operating out of Wesley since the beginning of February and reaching out to the LGBT community through ads in Lavender Magazine and other means. That in and of itself is not an issue with the United Methodist Church — throughout the world, a network of “reconciling ministries” is reaching out to the LGBT community in hopes of bringing them back into the church. Renstrom, however, plans to go a step further. “The church has not been good to the LGBT community for centuries,” he said. “We don’t expect that we can reverse centuries of unpleasantness and hurt, but in our small way we can do things that might be helpful to people. Including doing blessings of all reverent and respectful relationships.”

In other words, he plans to officiate at gay marriage ceremonies.

However, those blessings are strictly prohibited by the United Methodist Church’s book of rules.

“Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches,” said Victoria Rebeck, director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. “That’s what the book says. But to say that he might do this is not against the rules. Someone has to issue a complaint.”

Renstrom has not blessed any LGBT unions yet. But he plans to do so soon. The pastor will bless several unions during Gay Pride at locations outside of the church, a subtle sidestep of the official rule.

“The church does not allow ministers to celebrate unions. We recognize that,” said Renstrom. “But we are willing to do that because we believe that blessing relationships is consistent with the message of Jesus. For me the question is not why would we, but why wouldn’t we?”

Along with his belief that blessing all loving unions is consistent with the teachings of Jesus, Renstrom personally has many friends in the LGBT community, friends who were there for him through some tough times. Their support was a catalyst in his decision to focus on the LGBT community, and he was upfront about that with the United Methodist Church from the start. While Bishop Sally Dyck promises to follow the proper disciplinary procedures should a complaint be issued, Renstrom points out that she herself served a reconciling congregation before her election as Bishop.

In early June, about 70 United Methodist clergy in Minnesota signed a symbolic statement that they would “offer the grace of the Church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage.” Since then, similar letters have been signed in Illinois, New York and other locations, and votes at the 2004 and 2008 Methodists General Conferences suggest that American Methodists are ready for wider acceptance of the LGBT community. But for now, people like Pastor Renstrom have an important role to play.

“We are working to change policy, but changing the policy does not change people’s hearts,” said Troy Plummer, Executive Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network. “It helps across the board when individuals and local congregations show their support. It’s really helpful when they take action.”

According to Plummer, there are Methodist clergy around the country that are blessing LGBT unions in secret, but very few planning to do it in the open like Renstrom. He believes that Renstrom isn’t likely to face repercussions from his actions, but even in a progressive city like Minneapolis, the United Methodist Church has little choice but to investigate if a complaint is filed.

Renstrom does not seem afraid of potential fallout. He’s willing to share his intentions with anyone who asks, and has plans to openly work to build New Harmony’s gay-friendly reputation.

On Wednesday, June 22, the church will host A Concert for Pride, an all-ages concert event co-hosted by the Loring Theater. It’s all part of what Renstrom sees as his mission with New Harmony Church. “We’re a small church with a big heart,” he said. “We know that we’re small, but we believe that we have a huge purpose to fill.”

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