Special Report

Iowa Election 2023

Walnut Hills United Methodist Church: A Progressive Congregation in an Iowa That Turned Red

Walnut Hills Church is located in Urbandale, IA at 12321 Hickman Rd.

It is Sunday morning in Urbandale — a city of 45,000 about nine miles northwest of Des Moines, Iowa. Autumn leaves fall from the trees.Make America Great Again and Vivek Ramaswamy for America signs stand proudly on local lawns. Governor Ron Desantis, who has spent much of his campaign attacking the trans community, recently completed his “Full Grassley” tour of Iowa’s 99 counties on Dec. 2.

It is election season in The Hawkeye State. But for the members of the Walnut Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday mornings are for attending Reverend Nate Nim’s 9:30 am service and for reminiscing about the days when candidate Barack Obama campaigned across the state, offering a progressive message. 

Walnut Hills stands tall above the trees at 12321 Hickman Rd. About 100 worshippers gather with wide grins stretched across their faces as they warmly embrace one another, sharing snippets of their weekend plans. Rainbow stoles, symbolic of support for an inclusive community, hang gracefully around the necks of the congregation members. The atmosphere is warm and emanates safety. 

“We are a reconciliation church,” says church-goer Sandy Lorenzen, 54. “We are open and affirming. We will accept you into our congregation, into our friendship world.”

(Photography by Julia Doyle.)

Reconciliation, in regards to religion, refers to restoring broken relationships between individuals, groups, and communities. It often emphasizes dialogue, understanding, and mediation to address conflicts, promote social harmony, and overcome historical or contemporary divisions, whether based on race, ethnicity, ideology, or other factors.

“It is not just that,” said Lorenzen, who has been a member of Walnut Hill’s congregation for the last 23 years. “You will see that [message] on every church door, but our statement goes further. If you are gay, you can teach Sunday school. A lot of places will say you are welcome to join our congregation but you cannot teach Sunday school. You cannot make any open decisions in [those churches]. We [at Walnut Hills] will have a gay marriage here. We could have a gay minister here. In fact, we did.”

Not all United Methodist Churches (UMC) follow in the footsteps of Walnut Hills. According to Reverend Nate Nims, who has served at the congregation since 2021, “Walnut Hills is one of the more outspoken churches.” Nims shared that, “a good handful of churches have adjusted their wedding policy and staffing.” However, the church is finalizing a separation within the UMC organization in Iowa. UMC will be losing 15 percent, or 143, of its churches. 

Nim’s explained that certain churches have chosen to leave because they do not wish to be connected to a denomination which will allow for same-sex marriages and LGBTQ members of the clergy.

The separation speaks to conservative mindset which influences many voters and elected officials in Iowa. Walnut Hills may reside in Polk County, which President Joe Biden secured with 56.7 percent of the vote in 2020. However, the state as a whole has only grown redder over the last four Presidential elections.

Then-Senator Barack Obama won the state in 2008 with a 9.54 percent margin of victory. However, the first black president won the state with only a 5.81 percent margin of victory in 2012. Former President Donald Trump won the State in 2016 with 51.7 percent of the vote against Secretary Hillary Clinton. His margin of victory grew against Biden when Trump received 53.1 percent of the vote. 

On March 22, 2023, Iowa became the eighth state in the U.S. to pass a ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender youth. The health care ban is similar to bans that have been introduced across the country, and would prohibit trans youth from accessing medical care, including hormone replacement therapy, gender-affirming surgeries and puberty blockers. 

This policy change concerns many in the Walnut Hills community. However, few grieved more than Kassandra St. Claire, who joined the Walnut Hills congregation this past June and is transgender herself. 

St. Claire transitioned in 2018 and “wishes [she] could vote for A.O.C.” — Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York City — for president. St. Claire shared that her top issue for the election was “inclusion,” which she feels deeply at Walnut Hills, but not outside of her church’s four walls. 

St. Claire spoke of her time in Utah with her wife, who is also transgender. “When I was out with my wife in public, she would ask ‘Do you know why those people are looking at us? It is because they disapprove of us.’ I don’t feel that at all here [at Walnut Hills].”

“Almost all of the organized religions, you could not get married and be recognized. This church recognizes our marriage and that means a lot.  I was a confirmed Catholic, and we could go into church. But we wouldn’t be recognized as a couple. Then we would more or less have to lie and say ‘this is my roommate.’ Having a place that is inclusive means a lot. I mean why not? If I go outside to the metro, that is a different story.” 

(Photography by Julia Doyle.)

St. Claire plans to support Biden in the 2024 election. However, enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate remains low among the congregation. Much of the congregation fears he won’t make it through a second term.

Lorenzen feels the incumbent is “not strong enough.”

Reverend Nims remarked that “Iowa is not as purple as it used to be,” and that “Iowa would probably go red if it were Trump and Biden.” 

However, there is still hope among the congregation that Iowa will return to supporting Democrats. The Iowa School Board held its elections on Nov. 7. Although school board elections are non-partisan, they have taken a heated political turn in the Des Moines metro in recent years as Republicans have passed laws that impact LGBTQ students, restricted what books students can read, and decided which bathrooms they can use. 

For Lorenzen, who raised her son in the Des Moines public school system, a sense of hope washed through her when the results came in that “Moms for Liberty” backed candidates suffered resounding losses on election day.

Those “can swing Republican,” Lorenzen said. But  “it didn’t go this way this time.” Lorenzen let out a deep breath and smiled. For Lorenzen, anything could happen in 2024.