Speaker at Park River Bible Camp backs out after backlash from surrounding communities
Pastor Drew Stever, a queer, transgender pastor, was scheduled to speak at Park River Bible Camp’s Youth Fest on July 10, but decided not to after people in surrounding communities expressed their disapproval of him speaking at the event to camp leadership and on social media.
PARK RIVER, N.D. – A speaker at an event hosted by Park River Bible Camp near Park River, North Dakota, backed out after backlash from surrounding communities about the speaker’s gender and sexuality.
Pastor Drew Stever — a queer, transgender pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Hollywood, California, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-affiliated church — was scheduled to speak at Park River Bible Camp’s Youth Fest on July 10, but decided not to after people in surrounding communities expressed their disapproval to camp leadership and on social media.
He cited concerns for his and his family’s safety for his decision to back out.
“Camp is supposed to be a place where you can go and just be, and we didn’t feel like we could be at camp and be in the town fully present, fully comfortable and fully feeling like our safety was a priority,” said Stever.
Youth Fest, taking place July 10-15, is a new event for the ELCA camp, and was created for seventh- through 12th-grade students as an alternative event for the ELCA’s National Youth Gathering, which was canceled due to COVID-19. Each day of the event had a speaker scheduled to give a talk about that day’s theme and be present for activities at the camp. Stever’s talk would have been about goodness and kindness.
Rebecca Kjelland, executive director of Park River Bible Camp, said all speakers at the event were chosen intentionally and the group contained an Indigenous speaker, Black speaker and disabled speaker along with Stever, who represented the LGBTQ community.
“We wanted to make sure that all voices were heard, that they all were people that would be a part of the table — table meaning table of the church that we’re all a part of,” said Kjelland.
She started hearing backlash about Stever’s gender and sexuality, as well as about one of his tweets from three years ago that mentioned sex toys.
“Absolutely not was that going to be the conversation this week or when he was going to be speaking for the half-an-hour time slot that I gave every speaker,” she said. “It is unfortunate that that was blasted on social media.”
A local church also published a statement against the camp’s event. In the June 26 bulletin of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Grafton, a message was posted warning parents not to send their children to the event because the event would have left-leaning speakers promoting “things contrary to the Catholic Faith,” specifically a transgender speaker.
“Unfortunately, this camp can no longer be trusted to promote genuine Christian morality,” read the message.
Father Jeff Eppler, pastor at the parish, said the list of speakers was brought to his attention by a number of parishioners.
“I knew from the past that we had some parishioners sending kids to the camp, and that what the camp was promoting was contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, so as a pastor, I had a responsibility to let people know this is what’s going on,” said Eppler.
Kjelland says it was disappointing that leaders at St. John’s the Evangelist Catholic Church did not reach out to have a discussion with her about the event or the speakers before publishing the notice.
“I am not someone where it has to be where we agree at the end of the conversation, but at least then they have all the information from myself or one of my board members,” she said.
People also took to Facebook, posting comments on Park River Bible Camp’s posts, speculating the political views of the speakers at Youth Fest, accusing the camp of indoctrinating children and calling for Kjelland to be fired, said Kjelland.
In a July 7 statement, Kjelland reiterated the camp’s stance on LGBTQ individuals, saying the organization does not see identifying as part of the LGBTQ community as a sin. This is in line with ELCA policy.
One of Park River Bible Camp’s messages, and one that has been the same for the last 22 years she has worked at the camp, said Kjelland, is that all are welcome at the camp. This message is even on a sign for the camp posted at the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 32, which has the name of the camp, and beneath it, “All Are Welcome.”
“If we cannot welcome all people into this camp, then we need to change our sign, which makes me very sad, because for years, we have welcomed all people onto this site,” said Kjelland.
Stever says it is disappointing to have to make the decision to not speak at Youth Fest.
“It’s mostly the kids that I’m sad for. I think the camp was trying to be really intentional about having a really diverse slate of leaders and speakers and to allow for that broadening of worldviews, not just for the kids, but other adults who would be at camp too,” said Stever. “I think they’re still going to get some of that, but it’s going to be smaller than what it was intended to be.”