Not your father’s Baptists

Kingfield’s Judson church is a liberal congregation building bridges in and across communities

Tucked discreetly in the Kingfield neighborhood is what one churchgoer called "a little church with big ideas."

Judson Memorial Baptist Church members will quickly tell you they’re "not your average American Baptists."

Judson, 4101 Harriet Ave. S., openly accepts gay and lesbian members — even performing commitment ceremonies — is involved in the peace movement and fosters an anti-racism team. Pastor Dianne Hooge said that American Baptists could be described as a more liberal form of Baptists, far different from conservative Southern Baptists.

She said the liberal denomination does not follow a creed as many other churches do. Instead, they follow their "soul liberty," which allows each congregation, with God’s leading, to decide who its leaders are and what it should be to its community, she said.

Hooge said Judson has chosen a non-judgmental presence. "It’s embracing for all who come in the door," she said.

Hooge said that decision requires bravery from her flock. She said they must take risks, whether inviting a stranger to coffee or into their home. Hooge said "soul liberty" can also open the door to criticism.

Lefty Baptists?

"There are people within the denomination who don’t believe in our stand on gay and lesbian people," she said.

Despite the fact that some American Baptist congregations don’t agree, she said many within the denomination still respect her church’s choice, because it was theirs to make.

Rev. Dr. Paula Lehman, minister of Christian Education for Children and Youth at Judson, was raised in a Mennonite church where she worked for years, until she was expelled for being gay.

After that disheartening experience, she said coming to a Baptist church was unthinkable. Lehman said she discussed her apprehensions with a previous Judson pastor before taking on her role there. He said her sexual preference would never be an issue, and it never has been.

Many other members of the church hold it in such high regard because of the focus on community and self-examination. Judson church member and City Councilmember Don Samuels (3rd Ward) said he came to the church one year ago because of the congregation’s warmth and understanding of complex human relations in the community.

Samuels — who represents a north Minneapolis ward with many minority residents — praises Judson for having an anti-racism group that meets once a month.

"It’s a difficult national problem that not many congregations are willing to face, so you have to admire that," he said.

Samuels graduated from Luther Seminary more than a year ago. At the time, he wasn’t thinking of a council run (the seat only came open after its incumbent was charged with extortion) and was instead considering forming a ministry in his neighborhood, Jordan.

First, he said, he wanted to find a church to belong to that held his same convictions. Other Baptist leaders recommended Judson’s little 250-member church.

Samuels said he found it a warm and welcoming place. Although it’s located far south of his ward, Samuels said the Judson congregation was right behind him when he was running for office. Samuels said church members not only became his election staff and helped to raise over half of his campaign money, they also put meals in his freezer so he could spend his time campaigning.

Lehman said building community and deepening relationships is how members find God at Judson. It also has a lot to do with the involvement of kids at the church.

Kid central

Lehman said kids are encouraged to help with the music in church and also allowed to read scripture and preach if they want to. She said her philosophy to involve children more in the church dates to her own experience of church as a child.

In a recent sermon, she told the congregation how, as a child, she used to pinch her little brother to make him fuss, so she’d have to leave church to care for him. "We really work hard at Judson to involve kids in worship, so it doesn’t get boring," Lehman said.

Kingfield resident Jenny Buck moved into the neighborhood five years ago and has two sons enrolled in the pre-school housed at Judson. She said her family had tried out many area churches, finding them all too large and impersonal. Buck said she learned more about the church’s commitment to kids when she brought her kids to the separate day care.

Buck said that commitment is apparent in the fact that they support Lehman’s full-time position — dedicated entirely for kids’ programming.

Churchgoer and former Sunday-school teacher Monica Lewis said the freedom the children get to participate is extraordinary and one of the things that keeps her coming back. She said one child wanted the choir to perform "In the Garden of Eden" by Iron Butterfly, because he had seen it done on The Simpsons. Lewis said the choir not only complied, they hid lighters in the pews for parents to raise during the long ballad.

Lehman said the church’s Wednesday "CHOW" (Church on Wednesday) night, featuring different theme nights and activities for kids, gives them another way to have fun at church.

"We’re the best-kept secret on the corner of 41st and Harriet," said member Jenny Buck.

Strong bonds

Before coming to Judson two and a half years ago, Hooge had been an area minister serving 62 churches in Massachusetts, doing consulting and pairing needy churches with clergy and staffing.

She said in that job she began to feel disconnected, helping people with one-shot problems and moving on to another church. "The only way to have a real impact on people’s lives is when you’re walking with them," Hooge said.

At Judson, she said she’s found that and is constantly impressed by the members. Hooge said one thing that really impressed her about the church from the beginning was the strong lay leadership. "They’re not sitting back and waiting for a pastor to tell them what to be and believe," she said.

On Good Friday this year, the choir and orchestra performed a very difficult piece of music — staged to help the church raise charitable contributions, Hooge said. The $600 raised went to a refugee charity and a peace movement organization.

Because the church relies on pledges for its annual budget of $300,000, Hooge said she’s been touched seeing members with little to no money dig down deep to help the church. "An elderly couple wanted to offer something out of their home to a church auction, because they can’t give any money," she said.

Hooge said by these examples, the church succeeds in enriching the community. To extend the church community to the surrounding area and raise a few bucks for the collection plate, Judson is holding a street fest Saturday, May 31 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. There will be music and food at the event, in addition to a silent auction and face-painting.

For more information about the street fest, call Monica Lewis at 789-8349, and for more info about Judson Church call 822-0649 or check out their Web site at