Colonial Church of Edina, whose name and architecture reflect its roots in 17th-century New England, has long celebrated its religious ties to the early Pilgrim settlers. Church founders never imagined that the term "Colonial" might one day be associated with white oppression, or that some members might want to throw out the church's name for that reason.

But that's just what has happened. The well-known west-metro congregation is reeling from an emotional debate over whether "Colonial Church" carries too much negative baggage amid today's heightened racial sensitivities.

The issue came to a head in January, when church members narrowly vetoed a proposal to change the 75-year-old name to an undetermined alternative.

The controversy at Colonial reflects the broader challenges facing religious congregations across Minnesota as they strive to deal with racial justice issues following the death of George Floyd. Faith leaders are grappling with how far to go, how fast to move and what steps to take as they try to balance tradition and change without alienating members.

"It's really a hard time to lead," said the Rev. Jeff Lindsay, Colonial's senior pastor. "The culture around us is changing rapidly, and [clergy] have to meet that on both sides. There's a cost, one way or another."

Two of Colonial's sister churches from the Congregational tradition also are confronting the fragile balance between past and future. Just over a year ago, a majority at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis voted to remove a large wall tapestry, "Churchmen in the New World," from the social hall because its depiction of Native people was considered racially offensive.

And Mayflower Church in south Minneapolis has announced it will decide whether to change its name — associated with the arrival of the Pilgrims — before the congregation's centennial in 2025.

The Mayflower name "is constantly bubbling up, from parents who use our child care center to people we meet," said the Rev. Sarah Campbell, senior pastor at Mayflower. "For example, some of us were at a Line 3 [Enbridge pipeline] encampment last year, and when we introduced ourselves someone asked, 'What do you make of that name?' "

Jim Bear Jacobs, director of racial justice and community engagement for the Minnesota Council of Churches, said such challenges are not uncommon as faith leaders test new ideas — sometimes quickly.

"In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, there's been a lot of churches with racial justice teams or advocacy groups, and there's been an urgency for things to be done within those groups," he said. "I've seen increased requests for special speakers, for trainings, for guidance on resources to do more heavy lifting on issues of racial justice, historic injustice, what reparation could look like."

'Change is hard'

Colonial Church is rooted in the Congregational tradition, which traces its history to Puritan church reformers who fled persecution in England and settled in New England. Congregationalists have a history of embracing progressive causes, from the abolitionist movement in the 1800s to the racial and social justice movement today.

Colonial's sprawling church complex is modeled after a New England village. Its rooms carry names of colonial leaders such as the Anne Bradstreet Hearth Room and the Gov. John Carver Common, which holds a replica of the Mayflower ship and a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

The idea for a name change originated with church members and the church council in July, and it was unanimously embraced by staffers and clergy. They held virtual town hall meetings and "listening sessions," and created a web page for members to directly express opinions.

Supporters argued that the word "colonial" often carries a negative association for people who aren't white Americans, and that the arrival of English colonizers marked the destruction of a way of life for Indigenous people and the enslavement of Black people. They said it was offensive to some church members as well as community and global partners.

"The name says something about us that isn't true," said the Rev. Sara Wilhelm Garbers, of Colonial's ministerial team. "This is a church that has long cared about the world, long cared about justice. That's why we felt it was imperative to consider changing it."

Opponents of the proposal questioned its rationale and timing, especially amid a pandemic. Who and where were all these people offended by the church's name?

"I too saw 'colonial' as being more about our Pilgrim past, our New England founders, etc.," wrote member Pam Palmer on the name change web page in November. "Now everything about our nation's past is deemed horrible and our history is being erased and obscured. … Will we now also redesign the church itself so it doesn't offend anyone?"

The proposal to change the name was approved by a majority of members, or 61.5%, but the number fell short of the 67% supermajority needed to pass. The issue is on hold, but congregation tensions remain.

"We learned that change is hard," said Lindsay. "It will be too fast for some, to slow for others. Too far for some, not far enough for others. The hard work is finding common ground moving forward."

Historical baggage

A name change is one of the more dramatic steps that Minnesota churches are considering in relation to racial issues. Numerous others are bringing in speakers, offering workshops on white privilege, hosting book clubs on bestsellers such as Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist," and providing financial support to communities in need. Colonial, for example, has a $1 million "Blessing initiative" that funds nonprofits and new businesses tackling critical community needs.

Churches are also re-examining their own denominations.

"Every denomination has a mixed bag in terms of its history," said the Rev. Anita Bradshaw, an adjunct professor at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and author of "Change and Conflict in Your Congregation."

Congregationalists "had boarding schools," she said. "We colluded with business in Hawaii to overthrow the queen."

Southern Baptists used Christianity to justify slavery, and the Catholic Church forced religious conversion, often with violence, on Indigenous people across the Americas. Many Christian denominations, including Lutherans and Methodists, ran boarding schools for Native American children that forced them to abandon their language and culture.

"It was a different time and a different view of the world," said Bradshaw. "Churches can't undo history, but they can make efforts going forward to not just apologize but do something differently."

Nationally, the pilgrim symbol also has faced scrutiny, including the name of the Pilgrim Press, the oldest continuously operating publishing house in North America. The denomination that now represents Congregationalists — the United Church of Christ (UCC), following a 1950s merger — grappled with changing the publisher's name as well, said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC president.

After consulting Indigenous leaders and others, Dorhauer said a compromise was reached that allowed it "to perpetuate this historic name in a way that isn't offensive." The name now reads "the pilgrim press" in lowercase, so it doesn't refer to white colonizers "but generically to all who wander and explore."

While pilgrims and colonizers are not flash points for most Christian churches, others still grapple with how to tackle an often unconscious bias in names, programming, staffing and community involvement.

"These are unprecedented times," said Lindsay. "We're dealing with things we haven't dealt with before."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511