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A church divided

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HARVEY, N.D. - Grace Erickson has that air of the classic strong Midwestern woman, but tears welled up in her eyes as her husband talked about those who have left their church, First Lutheran. She says she's brokenhearted about it.

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"I see families and I see friends being broken apart," she said.

"It's a tough situation," said Grace's husband, Floyd, a custodian at First Lutheran, who everyone knows as Lefty. "I see it. I work in that church ... taking that vote just kind of separated people."

The vote was First Lutheran's second survey of its members' desire to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after the denomination's 2009 decisions to approve gay clergy and a controversial social statement on sexuality.

Since the April 25 vote, which didn't pass, many members of First Lutheran's congregation have left the church to form a new one, called Faith Lutheran, that's more in line with their religious values. Furthermore, the pastor of First Lutheran stepped down after the vote.

The situation in Harvey is a microcosm of the greater schism sending cracks through the foundation of the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. Faced with the reality that the actions of the ELCA contradict what some see as biblical and moral truths, many churches across the region and nation have weighed the idea of leaving the ELCA.

In Harvey, a city in central North Dakota with just under 2,000 people, the recent struggle has split the church, but it has also unified some friendships and created a new beginning for some Harvey Lutherans.

David Lautt, a longtime member at First Lutheran who favored breaking from the ELCA, said his home phone rang all day after the vote failed.

Twenty-seven people gathered at the Lautts' home that April evening. Lautt's wife, Diana, said, that day "it was like, 'OK, I guess we need to start a church,' and I think we just knew."

A week later, more than 100 gathered at the first Sunday service of the new church, which meets in the local United Methodist Church in Harvey.

"We were expecting 50 to 60 (people) when we started," said David Lautt, who serves on the Faith Lutheran Church council.

Now there are concerns that the place where they're meeting may not be large enough when attendance picks up in the fall.

The Rev. Fred Westerhold, who stepped down as pastor at First Lutheran, now serves as "supply preacher" for Faith Lutheran. He said he hopes to become the permanent pastor of the church. The congregation decided to become a member of the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ denomination, which takes a more traditionalist view of sexuality.

Westerhold announced the church's affiliation with the LCMC at the June 6 Sunday service of the new church. The declaration was met with applause by the audience of about 90.

But while there has been excitement in Harvey about the new congregation, there's also been plenty of hurt to go around.

"It's been very difficult, and not just for me," Westerhold said before heading out to the city's rodeo grounds to lead a cowboy church service. "There was a lot of pain on both sides."

Hard to move on

Gorden Thon stands in the basement where Faith Lutheran congregants gather for post-service coffee and muffins. Thon attended First Lutheran for "maybe 20, 25 years." And leaving that church hasn't been easy.

"That's our home church, and we did a lot of work in there and stuff, and we just hate to leave it," Thon said.

But Thon couldn't accept what he saw happening in the ELCA on a number of issues, including the controversial decision to allow people in committed homosexual relationships to serve as clergy.

"What are you going to do if your little kid is going to Bible school and they're taught all kinds of things and they say, 'How come there's two men living over there in the parsonage?' " Thon asked.

Don and Linda Frost also attend the new church. They stand outside their home after a recent Sunday service. They can see the old First Lutheran Church from the driveway.

They were married in the old church. Don was baptized and confirmed there.

"His folks helped build the church, and there's a lot of memories there," Linda Frost said.

It's been difficult, "but you've got to go with your gut," she said of their decision to leave.

'No joy' in leaving

Western North Dakota Synod Bishop Mark Narum was in Harvey the second time First Lutheran took a vote to leave the ELCA; two votes with a two-thirds majority are required for a church to leave the ELCA.

"I saw a very somber group of people. I sensed no joy from anyone. I think that people deeply understood how painful this entire process had been," Narum said.

Some of that pain belongs to Walter Filler. He's been a member of First Lutheran for more than 30 years, and the retired farmer with a gravelly voice plans to stay there.

"I'm the type of person - I don't run," Filler said while sitting in the Pizza Ranch in downtown Harvey.

"It's kind of heartbreaking for the simple reason you've made so many friends, and now some of them are leaving, and you kind of miss them. You miss these people," Filler said.

Harvey certainly hasn't been alone in its struggle after the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly last August. Through June 3, 419 of the denomination's more than 10,000 congregations had taken first votes to disaffiliate, according to the ELCA secretary's office. Of those votes, 283 passed. Just over 160 congregations have taken second votes, with 140 passing.

The unrest among some in the ELCA has caused an explosive growth in the LCMC. Since last August, that association of churches has about doubled in size to 433 congregations.

While the percentage of congregations leaving the ELCA hasn't been massive, the pain caused by the rift has been palpable.

But there are people who find hope in the situation.

Kim Kittelson, who is staying with First Lutheran Church in Harvey, said the split could end up being a good thing.

"To have another church grow within your community is a great thing," said Kittelson, who has been at First Lutheran since age 2. "And I believe that Faith Lutheran will be just an amazing mission force, and I believe that First Lutheran will grow."

As for Grace and Lefty Erickson, the couple that spoke with emotion about the pain of the divide - a topic that even brought tears to Grace's eyes - they spoke of both pain and healing as they sat in the entryway of their home.

"We're not bitter; we're just hurt," Lefty Erickson said.

And they aren't ready to give up on seeing their friends gathered back with them.

"We wish them the best and want them to know that First Lutheran Church is always open, and that door's always open for them if they want to come home," Lefty Erickson said. "If they want to come home, they can come home."

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