Church Ceremonies Push North Dakota Town To Grapple With Gay Rights | KERA News

Church Ceremonies Push North Dakota Town To Grapple With Gay Rights

Apr 14, 2015
Originally published on April 16, 2015 6:10 am

This week, Morning Edition is taking a look at the attitudes about gay rights in North Dakota, one of 13 states that still ban same-sex marriage.

Sixteen years ago, in the small town of Wahpeton, N.D., a United Methodist pastor refused to baptize a baby raised by lesbian parents. The pastor said because the child had lesbian parents, there was no way he could get a Christian upbringing. In response, the child's mothers, Valerie Nelson and Diane Gira, left the church.

Evergreen United Methodist Church, the place where the pastor refused to baptize the baby, still stands today. It's a one-story building made of tan brick that sits in a quiet cul-de-sac in Wahpeton. The current pastor of the church, Jen Tyler, would not say whether Nelson and Gira would have been able to baptize their son if they had tried today.

"For me as a pastor, my focus and my emphasis is on making sure I'm caring for folks the best that I can," Tyler says. "And there are times and places that as a pastor you have to make difficult decisions."

Decisions about sacraments like marriage and baptism put pressure on a religious leader to take a position on a polarizing issue. The pastor 16 years ago took a position that did not sit well with Nelson and Gira, who still live in Wahpeton. Outside Evergreen United Methodist Church, they smile and greet church members driving into the parking lot.

"It's a small community," Nelson says. "We know everybody."

Nelson says that for years, she and Gira avoided the church.

"I don't let it have much power over me anymore," she says. "I think for a while it did. But you know, you can't let things like this control your life. We come here for funerals of people that we know in this church. You know, it doesn't have power to hurt me anymore."

She thinks the decision to baptize a child of gay parents should not be difficult.

"The baptism of a child should be something a pastor is honored to do, you know?" Nelson says.

'Like Any Other Couple'

Nelson's son, Madison — the child refused baptism 16 years ago — is now a towering high school junior.

His teacher recently gave his class an assignment to deliver a persuasive speech.

In his family's farmhouse just outside Wahpeton, Madison sat at the dining table and recited his address on why gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry.

"Gay couples love each other like any other couple. They are being deprived of civil liberties, and marriage has lots of benefits for them," he says. "So go out and try to make a difference, whether it's writing to the president or the mayor. You have a voice. Use it. No one should be punished for the way they feel. Love is love."

Madison says most of his classmates were silent after he delivered the speech in class.

"We usually clap after someone's done," he says. "Not like they didn't want to clap, but there was no applause. I'm pretty sure they were really shocked."

It's not that they didn't know about Madison's parents; it's just that they usually don't talk about it.

Tensions Between Compassion And Faith

Gira says when it comes to daily life, she and Nelson have been accepted for years, but quietly.

"I think people just see us in the community, and they know that we're not any different than they are," she says. "You know, we're raising our son the same way. We go to church; we go to work."

That's daily life, but then there are other moments, such as when Madison was supposed to be baptized, or last year, when Nelson and Gira crossed the border to Minnesota to get married.

Nelson was stunned when a close family member did not attend.

"I think that it's hurtful when people that you expect will be there for you aren't," Nelson says. "You know, it just goes to show that this country is moving along, people's attitudes are changing and evolving, but there are still those who are adamant about denying couples like Diane and I basic civil liberties like marriage.

"When you have some of those people in your family, it does, it hurts," she says.

Wahpeton is a small town — the kind of place where you bump into people over and over again. So meeting Jen Tyler a second time wasn't surprising. She had initially said it would be a "difficult decision" if a gay couple asked her to baptize their child, but now she said she had more to say.

"If the only reason for there to be reservations were around that, issues of sexuality," she says, "that would not be something that would keep me from doing it. I absolutely would."

On Wednesday, the themes of compassion and faith come up again in our conversation with a business owner in Fargo, N.D., who says the church taught him that homosexuality is a sin.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In a couple of weeks, the Supreme Court takes up the issue of same-sex marriage, which is now legal in 37 states. North Dakota is among the states that still ban gay marriage, and MORNING EDITION's David Greene has been there, listening to people think out loud on the matter. David begins this morning with something that took place in a North Dakota farming community 16 years ago.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: It happened in Wahpeton, a town of 7,000 people surrounded by farmland near the Minnesota border. A United Methodist pastor there had a decision to make. Two members of his congregation wanted their adopted baby baptized. The pastor decided he couldn't do it because of the little boy's parents, Valerie and Diane. They're gay, and the pastor didn't believe they could give the child a Christian upbringing.

We wondered if the passage of time has changed anything in Wahpeton, so we visited that church, Evergreen United Methodist. It's a one-story, tan, brick building on a quiet cul-de-sac. The pastor there now is a young woman named Jen Tyler. She's been there less than a year. My colleague, NPR producer Maggie Penman, asked her a simple question.

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Do you think things would be different if Diane and Valerie were to be members of the church now, as opposed to 16 years ago?

PASTOR JEN TYLER: I am not prepared to make comments on individual pastoral care cases, past or present.

PENMAN: OK.

TYLER: I think that for me as a pastor, my focus and my emphasis is on making sure that I am caring for folks the best that I can. And, you know, there are times and places that as a pastor you have to make difficult decisions.

GREENE: As you can hear, she chose her words carefully. Decisions about marriage and baptism do put pressure on a religious leader to take a position on a polarizing issue. The pastor 16 years ago took a position, and it didn't sit well with those two moms, Valerie Nelson and Diane Gira. They still live in Wahpeton, and we met them outside the church that rejected them years back. They were all smiles, greeting current church members as they drove up.

GREENE: You're waving at this car that just went by. Everyone knows each other in this town? Is that what I'm getting?

VALERIE NELSON: We all - it's a small community. We know everybody.

GREENE: OK.

NELSON: So...

GREENE: That's Valerie, the more talkative of the two moms. She said that for years, the couple did avoid this place.

NELSON: I don't let it have much power over me anymore. I think for a while it did. But, you know, you can't let things like this control your life. We come here for funerals of people that we know in this church. You know, it doesn't have power to hurt me anymore.

GREENE: We did tell Valerie what the current pastor told us inside - that if a gay couple asked her to baptize their child today, she'd face a difficult decision.

NELSON: That shouldn't be a difficult decision. You know, that's my - that's my reply to that. The baptism of a child should be something that a pastor is honored to do, you know?

GREENE: As Valerie spoke, her son, Madison, was next to her, looking a little embarrassed with all this talk about the first months of his life. He was the baby who was supposed to be baptized. He is not a baby anymore. He's a junior in high school, the lead in the school play, with a personality as big as he is. He was towering over me in his Superman T-shirt. Madison told us about an assignment that he got in speech class recently.

MADISON: We do, like, informative speeches, a speech to entertain and then we did a persuasive speech.

GREENE: Students had to get their topics for the persuasive speech approved by the teacher.

MADISON: Well, she knows my parents are lesbians. I don't think she would deny me if I put down why gays and lesbians should be married, so I'm like I'm going to go for it. So I walked up, and she's like OK, you can run with it.

GREENE: We went with Madison and his moms to the family's farmhouse down a dead-end dirt road just outside town. And at the dining room table, Madison delivered that speech for us.

MADISON: Gay couples should be able to marry. Gay couples love each other like any other couple. They are being deprived of civil liberties and marriage has lots of benefits for them. So go out and try to make a difference, whether there's writing to the president or to the mayor. You have a voice; use it. No one should be punished for the way they feel. Love is love.

GREENE: Madison, how did your classmates react?

MADISON: Most of them were speechless 'cause all the rest of the persuasive speeches weren't as serious as this one. But after that - I mean, we usually clap after someone's done. And there was - not like they didn't want to clap, but there was no applause. I'm pretty sure they were really shocked.

GREENE: It's not that they didn't know about Madison's parents. It's just usually they don't talk about it. And here, Madison gave a speech, and they were called upon to react in some way. This scene, in that classroom, says something about the community. Diane says when it comes to daily life, she and Valerie have been accepted for years - but quietly.

DIANE GIRA: I think people just see us in the community, and they know that we're not any different than they are. You know, we're raising our son the same way - we go to church; we go to work.

GREENE: That's daily life, but then there are those moments, like when Madison was supposed to be baptized. And like last year, when Valerie and Diane crossed the border to Minnesota to get married. Valerie was stunned when a close family member didn't come. Valerie wouldn't say who. She said she didn't want to cause the person pain. She only told us this...

NELSON: You know, I think that it's hurtful when people that you expect will be there for you aren't. And I think that, you know, it just - it just goes to show that this country is moving along. People's attitudes are changing and, you know, evolving, but there are still those who are adamant about denying couples like Diane and I, you know, basic civil liberties like marriage. And when you have some of those people in your own family, it does - it hurts.

TYLER: Hi. How are you?

GREENE: How are you?

TYLER: I'm OK. How are you?

GREENE: Wahpeton, N.D., is a small town. It's the kind of place where you bump into people over and over again.

TYLER: Good. I've been thinking about you a lot this week and feeling conflicted about, you know...

GREENE: That's Pastor Jen Tyler again. She came out to talk to us when we were outside her church because she wanted to say a bit more. She had told us that it would be a difficult decision if a gay couple asked her to baptize their child. Now she added this...

TYLER: If the only reason that I had any reservation - if the only reason for there to be reservations were around that - issues of sexuality - that would not be something that would keep me from doing it. I absolutely would.

GREENE: The themes of compassion and faith, they came up again in a conversation we'll hear tomorrow with a business owner in Fargo, who says the church taught him that homosexuality is a sin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.