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New dean welcomes all to Trinity Episcopal

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Nathan LeRud, who was installed as the third dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, continues the tradition of making the congregation more inclusive.Construction blocks the entrance to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral — a beautiful structure nestled in Northwest Portland.

While at the moment Trinity is more difficult to enter, the end result will be a new ramp into the building — replacing a dilapidated one that hasn’t been up to code for years. That is the practical reason behind the work being done, though for the Very Rev. Nathan LeRud, there is another explanation.

“It’s very symbolic,” LeRud says. “Everyone is welcome here. Even those who can’t physically walk up the steps, you belong here, we want you here.”

LeRud himself was welcomed by the congregation seven years ago, and their belief and support helped him rise up the ranks quickly. LeRud is now serving as the third dean of Trinity, which may be surprising to some. He is young, only 33 years old, and he is gay. But gay people are involved at all levels of leadership at the cathedral.

Trinity opened its doors 20 years ago to the gay community, at a time when that was an unpopular stance.

“It was a period when there was a lot of hand-wringing from religious communities,” LeRud says. “This cathedral, for a lot of reasons, became a kind of refuge for people who had been really hurt by other Christian bodies around sexuality.”

LeRud has been married to the Rev. James Michael Joiner, an assistant rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, for three years. While there had been a few ceremonies held quietly back in the 1980s and ‘90s, LeRud’s and Joiner’s was the first same-gender wedding conducted at the cathedral by Bishop Michael Hanley.

“As soon as you think ‘yeah, we did it,’ you realize there is another step,” LeRud says. “We just keep finding new frontiers.”

Trinity wants to open its doors to everyone in Portland, creating a welcoming atmosphere to people from all walks of life. The congregation tries to foster a safe place where people can feel free to be themselves.

LeRud was installed as the third dean of Trinity in a special ceremony April 17.

He grew up in Portland, but lived for several years on the East Coast, where he was ordained a priest. Beginning the job hunt, he put his name in at places throughout Oregon, though a return to his hometown and family was always high on the list.

He first arrived at Trinity for training after meeting some people involved with the cathedral, and realized he felt connected with the congregation. They asked him to take a part-time position working Sunday School as a priest for youth and families in 2009. About six months later, a full-time job opened up, which he took.

LeRud worked his way from assistant to the dean to canon residentiary, eventually being appointed canon for spiritual formation. In 2014 he was asked to serve as the acting dean during the search process, and eventually was elected by the vestry and chapter to serve as third dean.

“It’s unusual for somebody to come in at the ground floor and seven years later end up the dean; that doesn’t happen generally in our tradition,” LeRud says. “There is a kind of gift in that, and I take it really seriously that this community embraced me.”

With the new title comes new responsibilities. LeRud now oversees 15 full-time and multiple part-time staff members, does fundraising and manages nearly a $1 million budget, and keeps the cathedral focused on its strategic vision.

“People are here because they are looking for something,” LeRud says. “Often they are working through trauma or hurt, and in really beautiful ways, I think are looking for healing here.”

LeRud is charismatic, both in his sermons and his daily interactions. He works to get to know each of the 1,500 members of his congregation, and is compassionate and understanding when it comes to the problems they face in their lives.

“I have never met a person in that level of leadership who is so humble, and is willing to be exposed and vulnerable,” says Susan Lindauer, the senior warden at Trinity.

That vulnerability shines through the most during his sermons.

“They are incredibly powerful,” Lindauer says. “He is tapping into something we are all struggling with. He is willing to walk the journey right alongside us.”

Two of the key issues that Trinity works to combat are hunger and homelessness. Every day of the week there is a food pantry that provides bags with enough calories to get someone through the day, making them the only emergency food supplier in Northwest Portland.

The cathedral also hosts a sit-down, restaurant-style meal on Wednesdays, where they transform the fellowship hall with tablecloths, flowers and piano music.

The goal is to provide a community for the people on the streets. A place where someone can come in and look another person in the eye, get some food and engage on a personal level.

“We don’t talk about religion, or say you have to believe in Jesus,” LeRud says. “The spiritual aspect for us is these are other human beings. The food is an excuse for a relationship.”

Many of the people who use the food services have even started attending on Sundays. This makes for an interesting mix, as Trinity has some wealthy people in its congregation. So you end up with the city’s upper class alongside the homeless in the pews.

“You come forth for communion, and everyone is equal beside that rail,” LeRud says. “It’s really powerful for me to see my congregation recognize no difference between people.

The current push is to be more inclusive for transgendered people. They are working to improve the little things, like making sure the bathrooms are gender-neutral.

“Nathan is so passionate about Trinity becoming this place of spiritual development and healing, but also a place for exploration,” Lindauer says. “A real leader who wants to make Trinity an incredible home and center for Portland.”

LeRud doesn’t know what the future holds, but he loves the idea of retiring with the community that embraced him so warmly. He wants to keep turning Trinity into a space where all are welcome, with even more outreach — programs for kids, senior citizens and all the people who may never be comfortable identifying as Christian.

“I anticipate Trinity is going to be here for hundreds of years,” he says, “and I am only here for this little bit of time. My job is to hand this off to somebody better than it is now.”

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@chriskeizur