Sean Dirige and his partner James Evans, both of Parkville, were looking for a change. Church was a part of both their lives, but their previous denominations no longer felt like home. Evans, 50, no longer felt welcome as an openly gay man in a Baptist church. And Dirige, 28, “outgrew" the Catholic services of his childhood, which he felt were rote and disconnected.
Above all, Evans said, “we wanted to find a church that was welcoming and where we could attend together.” Dirige said they found that at Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson. The couple, he said, joined the congregation last Easter.
“I have been to many churches in my lifetime and none was ever as immediately welcoming and friendly as this one,” Evans said.
Welcoming all people is Maryland Presbyterian’s mission, said the church’s pastor, the Rev. David Norse. Every service at Maryland Presbyterian has an American Sign Language interpreter, he said. New parents can take advantage of a calming, private lactation room and a changing table diapers provided in every size. And since Norse took the helm a year ago, Maryland Presbyterian has had an openly gay pastor.
“I think having a pastor who is ‘out,’ people come and find a sense of belonging,” Norse said, saying that feeling comes not just from the pastor but from the congregation. “They’re not the only queer couple.”
Norse, 32, will mark his one-year anniversary at Maryland Presbyterian in September. He and church members say the year has been one of symbiosis between the young pastor and the church’s progressive, change-hungry congregation.
“His youth appealed to me,” said Carol Mason, an eight-year member of the church who served on Norse’s hiring committee. “We needed someone with some young ideas, and he has such a varied, creative background.”
“He’s a millennial, but he fits anywhere,” said another longtime church member, Purity Njagi. "Old, young, middle class, everything. He’s very creative. He loves everybody.”
‘Not good for humans to be alone’
Norse grew up going to a Presbyterian church in the small town of Sherwood, Ore., a place he said there were “not a lot of people out.” When rumors about Norse’s sexual orientation started spreading in middle school, he said the church became a “place of refuge.”
“As I got older, I realized that wasn’t how people always understood LGBT inclusion in Christianity at large,” Norse said.
To make sense of that disconnect, Norse became a religious studies major in college. After spending time in Scotland and Japan, Norse graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. That, he said, was where he heard a lecture that helped shape his understanding of homosexuality in the Bible.
“God creates humans out of this earth,” Norse said the lecture went. “God says it’s not good for humans to be alone. If we’re causing people to be alone and isolated, that’s not how God intended us to be.”
Norse was ordained in 2014, less than three years after the Rev. Scott Anderson, in Madison, Wis., became the first openly gay pastor to ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 2011.
Norse served for two years at Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, a church he said is centered on “radical hospitality” to the vulnerable and marginalized. In Philadelphia, he met and married playwright and writer Eric Thomas. Norse then spent time in school to become a licensed therapist.
His work in Philadelphia was rewarding, he said, but exhausting – and as Norse and his husband started thinking about starting a family, the pastor said he started looking for a job with more stability than his grant-funded position at Broad Street Ministry.
He found Maryland Presbyterian, a Presbyterian Church USA church within the Baltimore Presbytery online and it seemed “too good to be true.” The church, he said, has long been welcoming and socially progressive.
"It’s a congregation I was excited about,” Norse said. “Who they are as a community is a miracle that people think doesn’t exist.” The congregation, he said, is special because it is an active congregation actively seeking creative ways to reinvent itself.
Maryland Presbyterian's congregation, Norse said, is activist and progressive, but skews older. “I have a church full of badass grandmas and everyone’s favorite aunt and uncle,” he said.
About 75 people are on the member rolls, Norse said, and between 47 and 67 come to services each week. Norse said at least 10 church members are queer, as are a large portion of visitors and prospective new members.
“We need some younger people,” said Mason, the longtime member, saying many congregants are in their 70s or older. “A lot of our older people are very active still, and believe in Maryland Presbyterian and want to see that continue,” Mason said.
Norse said that is best achieved by meeting young people where they are at, “seeing what God is already up to in the lives of young people.”
“You have to have conversations with the person in front of you, as opposed to an imagined millennial,” Norse said. “It’s about helping people create their own community.”
One aspect of church life Norse has built upon is social and political activism. Though the church does not endorse political candidates, “there are things we see that our faith compels us to speak out against,” he said. The church advocates on behalf of poor and marginalized people and the environment. It organized three buses to send people to the Women’s March on Washington.
Another weekly church event Norse said is popular is the Examen Happy Hour, during which participants use the church’s outdoor meditative labyrinth to practice a form of prayerful mindfulness pioneered by St. Ignatius Loyola. Norse said the event creates “fun inter-generational moments” in which 94-year-olds and 28-year-olds discuss their days together.
Though Pew Research Center has found that millennials, the demographic born in the 1980s and 1990s, are less often affiliated with a religious group than previous generations, Norse said a church can offer things many young people want: a community doing social justice work, a salve for loneliness and isolation, and solace in the wake of what he calls a “cruel” political climate.
Maryland Presbyterian, with its many active gay members, also provides a community for LGBTQ people who do not want to abandon religion simply because of their orientation, he said.
“I was drawn by Maryland Presbyterian because of the sense of community, and their tolerance,” Dirige, the 28-year-old who is new to the church, wrote in a text message. “Tolerance not just to the LGBT community but to other’s political views as well … Our biggest fear before joining was not because we are gay but because it might be a "bash the Republican church,” he said, because “James is Republican and voted for Trump.”