Two LGBTQ-affirming churches — one historic and one young — unite with installation of new pastor

BALTIMORE — A service held Sunday at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church signifies a new partnership between one of Baltimore’s historic churches and a fledgling congregation, both rooted in LGBTQ affirmation and inclusivity, generations apart.

The Rev. Emily Scott, who leads both congregations, was installed through a Rite of Installation, signifying her new role as pastor at the 161-year-old St. Mark’s church.

Scott founded Dreams & Visions in 2018 after she was called by a bishop within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to start a new congregation in Baltimore.

It’s made up of younger worshippers, like Julie Anderson, who joined in 2019 after being involved with the church’s Christmas pageant, which has cast a transgender woman to play Mary, Jesus’ mother, and featured drag queens in place of Christianity’s traditional three wise men.

It was a story she’d known all her life, “but it’s been made super queer and it really gave me a sense of belonging,” Anderson, who is gay, said. “I really, truly see a part of myself within it.”

The coronavirus pandemic took its toll on the new church. Meeting in person became a health risk, and Rituals, a Baltimore bar that had become the congregation’s de facto place of worship, was shuttered.

They began using an upstairs meeting space at St. Mark’s last year after partnering with the church on community outreach initiatives such as holding a “queer supper,” community meals cooked at St. Mark’s and given to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other food-insecure residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, Scott said.

The congregations sit under the denomination of the ELCA, a Protestant Lutheran church often largely rooted in progressive values.

The church ordains women as pastors and in 2009 removed sexual orientation as a bar for ministry candidacy, allowing gay and lesbian individuals in monogamous relationships to be ordained. Congregations within the ELCA split on the extent of that progressivism.

The church is not shielded from a widespread problem in religious spaces across the U.S. — attracting and retaining new congregants.

“We’re at a point where we’re needing to reestablish our congregation since it’s aging out,” said John Carter, treasurer for St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. The 161-year-old church’s interior is designated as a historic landmark in the city, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany of Tiffany and Co.

“There’s an opportunity to learn from Dreams and Visions and an opportunity to realize the gifts that we really have as a congregation,” he said.

The differences between the communities are distinct.

St. Mark’s congregants, numbers of whom are split evenly between heterosexual and gay/lesbian members, engage in more traditional worship. Seated in pews, they sing hymns accompanied by organ music and hear liturgical readings while a chasuble-clad pastor lights incense and delivers a sermon.

“Most of our hymns or liturgies are taken from composers like [Robert Schumann] and things like that really helped me feel really at home in the service,” Carter said.

Dreams and Visions is more “free form,” Anderson said. The church incorporates arts and crafts as a way to reflect on readings from the particular service. And there’s a focus on trauma-informed worship, Scott said, recognizing that many congregants have faced rejection in former religious communities.

That’s something the two congregations have in common, Carter said. He joined the ELCA when he moved to Chicago in his 20s, leaving his Baptist faith behind after the discriminatory comments from fellow worshippers left him feeling unwelcome.

“I felt really unwanted — and that stayed with me for quite a bit of time,” the 71-year-old said.

“The thing that is most impressive to me is the fact that people” who joined either congregation “really thought they had no place in any church at some point,” he said.

The congregations (both under 50-strong) are not merging, Scott says. They worship separately, and differently, but they are united in the same mission: to extend their reach into the surrounding neighborhoods and build an inclusive community hub for Station North, south Charles Village and Greenmount, where Carter said the church seeks a wider footprint.

“We’ve got a lot of young members — we’re really excited to learn from the St. Mark’s elders,” Anderson said. “It represents a true togetherness and kind of an intergenerational sort of bonding in a way.”

The founding quote of Dreams and Visions, taken from the Book of Joel, signifies that, Scott acknowledged: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your elders shall dream dreams, and your youth shall see visions.”

The covenant, signed by representatives of both congregations Sunday evening, signifies that “we believe we can do more together than we can apart,” Scott said.