ev. Sawyer Vanden Heuvel hails from a small town where his church shunned him for being LGBTQ. However, when the pastor moved to South Dakota he became pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It didn’t take long for Vanden Heuvel’s faith to beckon him to lead, and thus, he founded “a place for all” called Shepherd’s Table; born at the only LGBTQ community center in the state called the Prism Center.
This month, Shepherd’s Table became the first LGBTQ place of worship in South Dakota.
“Opening Shepherd’s Table has been a dream since I first connected with people while tabling with other Lutherans at a local Sioux Falls Pride event in 2021,” Vanden Heuvel said in an email to GLAAD. “There, I met so many LGBTQ+ folks in the area who had stories and experiences like that of many queer folk, including myself.”
The stories Vanden Heuvel heard were those of being kicked out of faith communities for coming out, stories of heartache, trauma, and survival; as well as stories of shame and isolation that come from being queer in the Midwest.
“The constant refrain I heard from people was how they longed for a community where both faith and queerness are not at odds with each other – a community where they truly could belong and experience the expansiveness of God’s love for all people,” said Vanden Heuvel.
That dream is now a reality. Two years ago Vanden Heuvel, also a 2020 GLAAD Media Institute Alum, had a “vision” for the ministry he founded.
The new, inclusive, community in Sioux Falls, South Dakota seeks to be a place for all to gather. And also, a place where LGBTQ people can be “seen, heard, loved, welcomed, and fed at Christ’s table,” reads the Shepherd’s Table website. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not discriminate, but we know that in some faith communities, people have been shamed or discriminated against for being LGBTQIA+. We welcome all to the table to experience the expansiveness of God’s love for all people,” the site continues.
With this said, the inclusive ministry practices: embracing LGBTQ people and their faith, and ensures the people are fed.
“[T]o witness the Holy Spirit make dreams like this become realized for a public, unapologetic, unashamed ministry of the Church that is focused on supporting LGBTQ+ people and their families, moves me deeply because I know this, without a doubt, will become life-saving and vital work for many who call South Dakota home.” Vanden Heuvel said.
Shepherd’s Table was founded on the call to remember Jesus as the “Good Shepherd.” The Good Shepherd who tends “to his flock and makes sure all are found in his fold.” The organizers also remember those fallen from violence against them. For instance, the community ensures Matthew Shepard’s memory always has a seat at Shepherd’s Table. Two anti-LGBTQ classmates murdered Shepard for being a gay man in 1998. Shepard was a Wyoming college student at the time, and he was 21-years-old.
“We consider Matthew’s life to be remembered as a saint and martyr for all of our queer siblings,” the ministry’s website reads.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls recently called Vanden Heuvel to serve, and then he became the mission developer and pastor for the Shepherd’s Table faith community. He earned his Master of Divinity in 2023 from Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In addition to earning his Bachelor of Arts in 2012 from Augustana University in Sioux Falls. Heuvel is passionate about building longer tables and creating spaces of belonging so that all may be fed, seen, heard, and loved at Christ’s table.
GLAAD Media Institute provides activist, spokesperson, and media engagement education, consultation and research for LGBTQ and allied community members, the media industry and advocacy organizations desiring to deepen their media impact