MOORHEAD — Shortly after 4 p.m. on a Friday, Mike Kinzler winds his way through the hallways of Fargo's Oak Grove Elementary School, passing students lingering near lockers.
Just outside his office filled with ladders, brooms and tools, a boy yanks off his snowsuit, catching sight of Kinzler mid-tug. “Hi, Mr. Kinzler,” he says.
Few here know that while Kinzler oversees the school’s physical functioning as “Maintenance Man” by day, by weekend — and most other hours — he’s “Preacher Mike” for the Moorhead Church of Christ. Though biblically trained to lead his congregation, Kinzler doesn’t go by “pastor,” he says, pointing to Scripture’s Matthew 23:9: “Call no man ‘Father.’”
“Religious leaders of the time wanted status and to be honored by men,” he explains, noting that Paul the apostle is called just that — by his name and description — rather than a formal title like “reverend.” Kinzler’s title — or lack thereof — hints at what motivates his small congregation, which numbers around 30 at its fullest; a place where words like “humble” and “Bible-believing” flow from congregants’ lips to convey both the community and its preacher.
He explains that all practices and beliefs within the Church of Christ come directly from the New Testament, including its name, borrowed from Romans 16:16: “The churches of Christ greet you.” Though some confuse the Church of Christ with either the United Church of Christ or the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints, neither are affiliations.
“We don’t have any creeds or confessions, because we have the Bible — God’s revelation to man — and that’s all-sufficient,” Kinzler says.
Neither will you find any Christmas or Easter celebrations, since, he says, while Scripture tells of events like Jesus’ birth, their celebrations aren’t biblical.
“Nowhere (in Scripture) does it say that God is directing the church to annually, specifically remember the birth of Christ,” Kinzler says. “I know the intention of Christmas, but it’s a fourth century Catholic holiday, and it’s not in the New Testament.”
Though it might seem “nitpicky,” Kinzler says, “everything we do in terms of what we believe, and practice religiously, comes from the New Testament.”
Place to call home
After coming to America from Ghana in 2009, Janet Ackah, who belonged to a Church of Christ congregation in her home country, happily found a congregation here; first in Minneapolis, and later, in Moorhead. Despite admitting to occasional dreams of moving to a warmer part of the country, she can’t quite leave.
“(My church) is the only thing keeping me here,” Ackah says. “There’s no discrimination. There is just love. To me, we are a family.”
Ackah calls Kinzler “very, very good,” expressing appreciation for the extras he and his wife, Raejean, do, like checking in with them regularly, stopping by for visits and enjoying monthly meals together as a community.
“Back home, we have a kind of soup we make with peanut butter,” she says, noting that when she serves it with rice at the church potlucks, it tends to be a very popular dish. Her husband, Moses, used to worship at another local Christian church.
“My wife convinced me to come to her church, and I thought, ‘I’ll give it shot,’” he says, noting that the community has welcomed his whole family, including their three children, ages 3, 6 and 9.
“Brother Mike, what I can say is he’s a spiritual man,” Moses says. “He’s not a perfect man — no one is perfect. But he’s a straight man. He’ll tell it the way he sees it.”
Upon moving to Moorhead from the Twin Cities in early retirement to be closer to family, Therese "Terry" Johnston and her husband — though teased by friends about moving north rather than south — also happily embraced the local Church of Christ.
“We noticed how caring and genuinely loving the people were,” Johnston says. “It was such a welcomed feeling, and exactly what we needed at that time, both spiritually and socially.”
Johnston finds the Scriptural emphasis, which she says her church while growing up lacked, vital.
“I also find a great deal of humility here,” she continues, crediting the Kinzlers, who launched the church 20 years ago. “It starts with Mike, who says, ‘I’m no more important than anyone here, or less important,’ … that is very refreshing.”
She also appreciates the weekly Communion practiced like the first Christians, the edifying sermons and “the very diverse group of cultures” comprising the community.
“We’ve had many immigrants from Africa, Hispanics and Caucasians,” she says.
Additionally, Kinzler’s focus on loving God and one another permeates everything.
“Today, one of our church members will take another to a doctor appointment. We will also readily call someone we haven’t seen in a while to check in, and make sure they’re feeling OK," Johnston says. "We do a lot of praying for each other.”
They also carry out evangelistic outreach, she says, including hosting two yearly community picnics.
“We want to give visitors a very hearty welcome and encourage them to come back,” she says.
The feelings of warmth, however, don’t just go in one direction.
“Every Sunday, when I get up to preach the sermon, as soon as I turn around and get behind the podium, I just smile,” Kinzler says, claiming to be a reformed introvert who has, over time, overcome his fear of public speaking.
“I’m happy to be there. I’m happy to see them. And I’m happy to try to minister the word of God,” he adds. “I just look at them and say, ‘Here is my family.’ And I know I have a rich privilege to speak to them. Hopefully I will leave them more encouraged than when they came.”
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.