FARGO — Joe Larson heard the call early.
It came to him as a youth growing up in Dassel, Minn., a small town west of Minneapolis. Members of his Lutheran church, his Sunday school teachers and his confirmation pastor all encouraged him to follow the voice inside, the one calling him to be a pastor.
And so when he left for college, he already had intentions of shepherding a flock. He majored in religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and went on to attend Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
In 1986, Larson was on the verge of being ordained, but something was holding him back.
He knew that if he became a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, he would not be able to live openly as a gay man. "Getting ordained was not an option if you were gay or lesbian," he said.
Larson eventually decided against becoming a pastor. "It was very difficult, and at the time, I wasn't out about the reason why I did that," he said.
Yet for him, the call never went away. Even after three decades, it was still there.
"Deep in my heart, I knew that if I had not realized I was gay, if I had been a heterosexual person all my life, I would have been (a) pastor all my life," he said. "That was my true calling."
With credit to a change in church policy in 2009, Larson has now finally been able to fulfill his calling. June 1 was his first day as pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Fargo.
In taking the post, he became North Dakota's first openly gay, married pastor in the ELCA, said the Rev. Terry Brandt, bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod. Larson, 59, said he believes he may also be the state's first openly gay ELCA pastor, married or not.
Brandt said he anticipated that Larson would be a good fit at St. Mark's, a church known for welcoming gay parishioners. "St. Mark's had indicated an openness to interviewing a gay candidate, but yet at the same time, they were committed to finding the right pastor," the bishop said.
Brandt said he thinks most people view Larson's sexual orientation as a non-issue. "What they see is not a gay pastor but, first and foremost, a pastor who happens to be gay," he said.
'The world has changed'
In becoming a pastor later in life, Larson left behind a career of working for nonprofit groups. Most recently, he was executive director of the Aliveness Project, a south Minneapolis community center for people living with HIV and AIDS.
He said he'd like to continue such efforts at St. Mark's, which, along with embracing the gay community, has a history of reaching out to recent immigrants and the homeless.
"We're seeking to serve all sorts of people," he said.
Larson is starting as pastor at a time when St. Mark's is looking for a permanent home after selling its downtown location in 2013. Right now, the church is temporarily sharing space with Elim Lutheran Church at 321 Ninth St. N.
Kathy Tietgens, a St. Mark's council member, was married in the church in 1971, and her two daughters were both confirmed and married there.
"We have a long history with that church. We've seen a lot of changes," she said. "Some of them were hard to accept at first, but I have to say that thank goodness the world has changed enough to open our eyes to the fact that I'm not the only Christian."
Based on her first impressions, Tietgens described Larson as humble and caring.
"Pastor Joe is a very compassionate man," she said. "I think people will pick up on that."
Finding a church
After Larson decided as a young man not to become a Lutheran pastor, he turned to the United Church of Christ, a denomination that had already ordained a gay pastor.
It was while attending a UCC church that Larson met his now husband, Charlie Jordan. The two have been together for 26 years, and they were married three years ago, Larson said.
In 2003, when Larson's mother died, he felt drawn back to the Lutheran faith. As it turned out, that same year the Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in Minneapolis became one of the first ELCA congregations to choose an openly gay person in a partnered relationship as its pastor.
This prompted Larson and Jordan to join the church, and they became friends with the pastor, the Rev. Mary Albing. Although Albing had been ordained, she was not formerly recognized as the church's pastor until 2009, when the ELCA voted to let gays and lesbians lead parishes.
Albing recalls that after the rule change, she and Larson went out for breakfast, and he asked her opinion on whether it was too late for him to be certified as an ELCA pastor, a process that takes a few years.
With Albing's support, Larson followed his original calling, and just last month he was ordained. She said she's sad to see him move to Fargo, but she's elated about the opportunity he's been given.
"Waiting 30 years for a call, he finally has one," she said. "To us, it's a sign of God's goodness."