A new wave of gay seminarians prepares to take the pulpit

The Lutheran church struggles with its policy on homosexuality and the meaning of "all God's children"

In front of 100 seminarians, the pastor called the interns down to receive the blessing. Kelly remained seated. A fellow student noticed her and told her to go down anyway. "I felt like I was getting a blessing I shouldn't be taking."

Even though it took two months, the blessing had an effect. Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C., a few blocks away from the Capitol building, called her for an internship. Kelly says the hardest part about the placement is the dress code of suits and sport jackets. "Every one here is so formal," she says with a sigh.

• • • • •

Lauren Wendt asked her pastor if she should still go to seminary. He told her, "Of course!"
Nick Vlcek
Lauren Wendt asked her pastor if she should still go to seminary. He told her, "Of course!"
Dustin Nelson came out as a result of seminary. "It was very freeing," he says.
Nick Vlcek
Dustin Nelson came out as a result of seminary. "It was very freeing," he says.

ONE PLACE WHERE GAY seminarians feel welcome is Mt. Olive church in south Minneapolis. The stately brick structure has stood at the corner of Chicago Avenue and 31st Street for 99 years. Inside, flying buttresses curve across the ceiling, a giant pipe organ fills the balcony, and the air is stale with incense.

Beneath the century-old spire, a tall, rail-thin man with a puffy, silk, flowered shirt passes out church programs. In the pews sit gay male couples with form-fitting shirts that accent their sculpted physiques. During the service, a man with gold, showy earrings walks to the front and reads from the gospel.

Among those crossing themselves on this particular Sunday morning is Dustin Nelson, a slender, 24-year-old Luther Seminarian. Nelson wears a pair of dress jeans, a neatly tucked-in button-down shirt, and tan leather Aldo slip-ons. His face is soft enough that he could pass for a teenager.

Nelson loves the strict liturgical method of the service. "It's full of rituals that date back centuries," he says. "And the service is not broken up by anything that distracts from the worship of Christ, like church announcements. Other Lutherans consider it 'high church.'"

A place like Mt. Olive, with gay men worshiping openly in church, would have raised eyebrows in Nelson's hometown of Belmond, Iowa, population 2,560. During high school, Nelson was into choir, band, and theater. While he snuck looks at other guys in the hallway, he always had a girlfriend.

Nelson was involved with the Lutheran church from the day of his baptism. He participated in youth group and by his senior year was looking forward to the day he could attend seminary. He went to Waldorf College, a tiny Lutheran school in Forest City, Iowa, where he majored in church music and learned how to play the pipe organ.

Deciding which seminary to attend was easy for Nelson. His childhood pastor had gone to Luther, as had all of his favorite professors at Waldorf. "I didn't think about it much," he says. "Luther was perfect—close to home, but far enough away."

It was at Luther that Nelson finally found the strength to say out loud what he had long felt in his heart.

"I was finally able to live into my sexuality. And when I came out to myself, it was very freeing. The highest of highs," he says. "I know it seems counterintuitive, but seminary allows people to find who they are, a sort of grounding. I know that sounds contrived, but it's true."

For his thesis, Nelson set about exploring the Christian understanding of marriage and how it relates to homosexuality. He mentions that Jesus never brought up the subject. Not once. "But," he adds, "I'm trying to understand what the text is trying to say without manipulating it. We all come to the Bible with preconceived notions. The challenge is to go in and see what we see."

While his original intention with seminary was ordination, he's since left that career track. He only knows of one gay man at Luther who is going for full ordination.

Gay men at Luther are stuck between two worlds, Nelson says. They are too gay for the campus, but too religious for the gay clubs in downtown Minneapolis.

"I never lead by telling a guy I'm in seminary," he says. "Guys might start confessing they don't go to church. And people assume you're going to be a pastor, or worse."

He relates a story of how one person thought he spent his days walking around in prayer, hands folded, while making sure not to make eye contact. "They were picturing monks," he says with a laugh. "But that's not the norm, thankfully, as Minneapolis is a little different in that there are so many gay Christians."

• • • • •

AT BETHEL EVANGELICALLutheran Church in southMinneapolis, Brenda Frois-land prepares for the ba-ptism of an infant. The 42-year-old from Iowa meets several times with the family to discuss the process. She goes over the prayers and reminds the parents that they'll be making a promise to grow their faith in front of 125 congegration members.

Froisland has a small but potent voice. When she stands in front of the congregation saying prayers with the family and baby, people listen.

Most every Sunday, Froisland wears a white robe and assists the pastor however she can. But on baptism days, she plays her most prominent role. She directs the entire congregation right up to the critical point.

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