First openly transgender pastor called to guide Lutheran church in North Dakota
“Historically the church hasn’t been kind to transgender people. A lot of churches still aren’t kind to transgender people," pastor Micah Louwagie said. "But St. Mark's has given me a lot of hope.”
FARGO — A church in Fargo has selected a transgender pastor to shepherd the congregation forward, continuing a long tradition of firsts for the historic church.
Newly installed as a pastor for St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Micah Louwagie is busy getting to know all the members of this small church at 809 11th Ave. S.
Louwagie, 28, has served as pastor at St. Mark’s since early January after being ordained in December. He was officially installed in his new position on Sunday, Feb. 12.
“I’m just your regular old run-of-the-mill parish pastor,” he said, “and I love it.”
Louwagie was chosen to serve St. Mark's in a unanimous congregational vote, making him the first openly transgender pastor of a North Dakota parish that's part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
While it's uncommon for openly transgender people to hold positions of influence in the Lutheran Church, Louwagie noted that LGBTQ+ history in religious institutions goes back a long time.
“LGBTQ+ people have always been in the church,” he said. “We’re everywhere.”
Louwagie's new parish has already astounded him with the amount of care shown toward the entire community, as well as a collective curiosity and openness to learning.
“They care deeply about not just the goings on in the community of St. Mark's, but they care deeply about their broader community,” he said. “Part of their decision to call an openly queer and trans pastor is rooted in their commitment to be a safe community for LGBTQ+ people.”
Louwagie said he plans to work with his new congregation to explore how the church can “best care for those with the least privilege and power.”
St. Mark's has about 100 members, the pastor said, and each Sunday about 40 people attend services in person. There's a kind of vibrancy that comes with small churches that you can't really replicate, Louwagie said.
'Calling has always been there'
As a kid, Louwagie belonged to a small Lutheran congregation in southwestern Minnesota. He lived on his family’s dairy farm in the same house that their father and his 11 siblings grew up in.
Louwagie himself has four siblings. While they went on to nearby technical schools after high school, Louwagie heard a different calling.
Since he was little, he had known he wanted to be a pastor.
“It's a very strange experience, very strange,” Louwagie said. “The calling has always been there, but who I am has changed in very big ways.”
These changes, Louwagie said, have taught him a lot about the work he feels called to do.
Louwagie realized he was gay during his final semester at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. He started coming out as trans in his early 20s.
“Oddly enough I didn't struggle with my faith,” Louwagie said. “My faith for me, particularly as a trans person, is deeply embodied.”
During all this, the church was doing some growing of its own. In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to allow openly LGBTQ+ people to be ordained as pastors.
While all ELCA churches can technically have a pastor who is LGBTQ+, most don’t go that route, Louwagie said. Reconciling Works , a group advocating for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people into the church, has had about 8% of ELCA churches join their Reconciling in Christ (RIC) movement, according to Louwagie.
“It's hard for trans people in the ELCA to find calls,” Louwagie said, adding that a good number of RIC churches still aren't open to hiring openly LGBTQ+ people.
St. Mark's was the first church of five where Louwagie interviewed and, right from the start, he sensed that this community was walking the walk, so to speak.
“As a trans person there are a lot of reasons for me not to trust the church,” Louwagie said. “Historically the church hasn’t been kind to transgender people. A lot of churches still aren’t kind to transgender people. But St. Mark's has given me a lot of hope.”
Not staying silent
St. Mark's has been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights for 32 years, according to its website . This is a powerful thing to see, Louwagie said, because the ELCA will “rarely speak out on LGBTQ+ issues.”
The silence can be damaging, Louwagie said.
“I already feel somewhat isolated because I am the only out transgender pastor in the ELCA in the entire state of North Dakota,” he said. “For my church body to be so silent … it's a really hard space to exist in sometimes.”
While interviewing, Louwagie was drawn to the fact that St. Mark's was very aware of North Dakota laws and pending state legislation that could affect transgender people.
The church has been hosting town hall gatherings to inform Fargoans about bills that could affect marginalized communities. The gatherings also give attendees the tools to get involved in the legislative process.
This work has been spearheaded, in part, by fellow St. Mark’s pastor Joe Larson, the first openly gay ELCA pastor in North Dakota .
“A lot of people just aren't aware of the legislative process,” Larson said.
So far this year, the church has hosted four town halls, which have attracted roughly 50 people each time. Topics of recent discussion include bills that seek to address personal pronoun use in public schools, ban transgender athletes from participating in public school sports and outlaw gender-affirming care for people under 18 .
Mostly, though, it’s about having open conversations with people about the issues, said Larson, who's been serving St. Mark's for the last seven years but will soon be leaving to pursue new opportunities.
“It's a big step for St. Mark's to call Micah as an openly transgender person,” Larson said.
St. Mark's has a long history of breaking new ground.
The church opened its doors in Fargo in 1886 and was the first Lutheran Church in Dakota Territory to use the English language in its services , according to church documents.
At the time, Lutheran churches nationwide were hemorrhaging members as their congregants drifted away to English-speaking churches.
In a sea of German, Norwegian and Swedish Lutherans who were used to practicing their faith in the languages of their homelands, St. Mark's helped propel the church forward, retain members and gain new parishioners by embracing English services, preserving their church for decades to come.