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St. Paul Park church's 'open' view draws PBS documentary interest

With a camera crew filming, Pastor Oby Ballinger leads a service at Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul Park on Sunday, April 21. The church is being featured in a national PBS show about "open and affirming" congregations that welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente1 / 2
Pastor Oby Ballinger started at Community United Church of Christ after the congregation decided to become an "open and affirming" church that welcomes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It's one of three churches nationwide selected for a PBS documentary about "open and affirming" churches. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 2

As Pastor Oby Ballinger greeted the Community United Church of Christ congregation on a recent Sunday morning, a video crew recorded footage of the service from the front corner of the sanctuary.

As the conspicuous camera rolled, Ballinger reminded church-goers why they were being filmed and said even though the service was a bit unusual given the camera crew's presence, he intended for their worship to be as normal as possible.

The camera crew took in the recent service at the St. Paul Park church to gather footage for a national PBS documentary on congregations that are "open and affirming." That definition varies by congregation, but generally is sought by churches that welcome all people regardless of their sexual orientation.

The documentary is expected to air this fall on PBS's "To the Contrary with Bonnie Erbie," an all-female public affairs show. In the Twin Cities it's broadcast on TPT on Sunday mornings; it's also shown on public television stations across the country.

There are more than 300 UCC congregations that are open and affirming, but it was not random that the show selected Community United Church of Christ as one of only three churches nationwide to profile.

The small congregation -- there are about 165 members -- decided several years ago to proclaim itself as open and affirming after it discovered during a pastoral search that many candidates wondered if the congregation was in fact open and affirming.

That decision was followed within a couple of years by the arrival of Ballinger, who in answering a call at the church became its first openly gay pastor. (He met his now-husband Javen Swanson while in seminary.)

The church's journey, along with how individual members view the change, was particularly appealing for the documentary, said Cari Stein, executive producer of "To the Contrary."

Geography and demographics also were factors in choosing Community United Church of Christ.

"It's not in a major city," Stein said, (and) "it's Midwest."

The other two churches being profiled are in Sedona, Arizona, and Washington, D.C.

Societal views are changing on same-sex marriage, Stein said, and that broad debate is very "top of mind" right now, including within churches. It's a big issue in Minnesota; Stein said last year's debate over a -- failed -- constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and the current proposal to legalize gay marriage in the state are intriguing backdrops.

"Clearly it's a significant issue," she said.

'A bold move'

The goal of the documentary is to explore how churches that are open and affirming reached that stage in the life of their congregation, and how it affected church and members, not all of whom may have supported the decision.

"It's a bold move to do something that might turn off a part of your congregation," Stein said.

While the documentary is focusing on churches that are embracing people of differing sexual orientations, Stein said it will lay out the arguments of scholars or churches that believe the Bible does not condone homosexuality.

Ballinger said it was an honor for Community United Church of Christ to be chosen for the documentary.

"We believe that the church should follow God in embracing and welcoming all people," he said.

The open and affirming movement still is small, Ballinger said. Only about 10 percent of UCC congregations have declared that. There is a similar movement in Lutheran churches.

Community United Church of Christ extends its definition of open and affirming beyond sexual orientation to include people of any income or ability, Ballinger said. It uses that identity to be more welcoming to children and the elderly.

A message above the sanctuary doors expresses that: "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."

As part of the documentary, Stein interviewed Community United Church of Christ members James Huffman, Edie Seefeldt and Dianne Barnack.

Longtime church member Frankie Fanklin said the open and affirming move has actually attracted young families to the congregation, and Ballinger's attitude "did so much to win over people who maybe were on the line" of whether to support the church's position.

Despite the big change and now the attention it has garnered the church, Franklin, a member for 50 years, said Community United Church of Christ has not fundamentally changed.

"We're still what we were," she said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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