On a recent Sunday, members of Fremont Presbyterian Church gathered in the courtyard under the blossoming crab apple tree for coffee and conversation before going their separate spiritual ways.
Divided by their differences - the congregation falls into camps of so-called progressives and traditionalists - the members nonetheless share sacred spaces at the church site near California State University, Sacramento, at Carlson Drive and H Street.
About 50 progressives who support the Presbyterian Church USA's decision to allow gay clergy prayed in the church's chapel at 11:15 a.m. Meanwhile, 300 traditionalists who left the Presbyterian Church USA for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church last year joined the 11 a.m. service at the adjacent Community Life Center.
More than 200 Presbyterian congregations nationwide - including nine in Sacramento - have been torn asunder over the Presbyterian Church USA's new rules and the ordination of its first gay minister, who is a former Sacramento pastor. The rift has resulted in lawsuits, sold churches, broken friendships and scattered congregations.
In a historic vote in October 2011, 427 Fremont Presbyterian congregants voted to leave the national denomination while 164 voted to stay. At the time, the 128-year-old congregation had about 1,200 members.
The vote prompted a church investigation into the schism to determine which faction was entitled to the church property valued at $9 million.
But an unlikely compromise was reached for a shared campus. Leaders say Fremont is perhaps the only Presbyterian church in America where this has happened.
"Yes, it is a miracle," said Marty Boersma, among the hundreds of Fremont traditionalists who split off to join the Evangelical Presbyterians. "We thought this might be too tough a nut to crack."
The Sacramento Presbytery, representing 35 churches in Northern California, helped mediate the sharing agreement.
"It was a creative way for all groups to move ahead in their chosen paths," said Transitional Presbyter Jay Wilkins, who administers the region's churches. "It's the first time we've ever reached such an agreement."
The Rev. Don Baird, a traditionalist who has been Fremont's pastor since 1995, said the way both sides bridged the schism broke new ground.
"Across the country, hundreds of congregations have left" the Presbyterian USA church, Baird said. "Many of them are doing it at incredible cost: They've lost their buildings, the Presbytery's locked their doors and closed their bank account. But they're willing to pay that price for what they believe."
At Fair Oaks Presbyterian, where more than 2,000 members voted to leave, those who joined the Evangelical Presbyterians paid $1.1 million for the deed; in Roseville, they paid $860,000, Baird said.
The Presbyterian Church, with roughly 3 million congregants nationwide, has attracted independent thinkers dating back to 16th-century followers of John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, Wilkins said. Five Presbyterians signed the Declaration of Independence.
But the church split during the Civil War over how the Bible was interpreted, Wilkins said. "Many Southerners felt the Bible provided justifications for slavery, and Northerners said there was no justification. That battle was laid to rest in 1983 with the unification of the two churches.
"We're kind of slow learners," Wilkins said. "We're still struggling over the interpretation of Scripture today regarding the ordination of homosexual persons, basically whether they may be welcomed as officers in the church."
Baird said the Presbyterian USA church instituted new rules governing marriage and those who are eligible to be ordained. He said the church applied a less literal reading of the Bible for its new rules.
"We said we don't think God made any mistakes. We may not agree with God or like what he has said (in the Bible), but we will obey and honor it."
Fremont's progressives have renamed themselves University Presbyterian Church.
One of their leaders, Joe Cavness, said his church believes "men inspired by God wrote the Bible and sometimes went overboard."
In their foundation statement, the progressives declare, "The University Presbyterian Church means to uphold a tradition in which Christian love is expressed freely and openly, and fellow members are supported on their spiritual journey, without regard to gender or sexual orientation ... Christian faith incorporates elements of doubt and allows for differences of opinions. Through questioning, study and prayer an individual creates his own belief system."
Despite their theological differences, Fremont congregants worship at the church they've been comfortable in for decades. Progressives and traditionalists still sing in the choir and go on missions and retreats together.
The differences in beliefs are real, however.
"It's really not about gay ordination," said Mark Eshoff, Fremont's executive minister, who negotiated for the group that joined the Evangelical Presbyterians.
Eshoff said the church he left had been drifting away from orthodox interpretations of the Bible over the last 25 years. "Love and tolerance are becoming more important than holiness and righteousness," he said. "When they supplant what we believe is God's plan for our lives, that becomes a problem."
Mike Lee, a 20-year veteran of Fremont who was discussing bicycling with another congregant in the courtyard between services, reflects the internal struggles congregants face.
While he accepts gays in secular life, he feels differently about their role in a religious setting. "I don't see a problem with a gay couple coming together in a civil union and raising a family," Lee said. "But in church, I don't think they should preach that the gay and lesbian lifestyle is their right."
Across the courtyard, Judy and Ken Kerri explained why they've stood with the progressives. "Originally, Fremont was a very liberal church," Judy Kerri said. "Martin Luther King Jr.'s father spoke to us right here. We marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965."
What had always been a very welcoming, open and inclusive church "suddenly became very exclusive and excluded gay people from any meaningful leadership position," she said.
Claudia Bays, a nurse, said her gay daughter grew up in this church. "I believe people are created that way, they don't choose," Bays said.
The Evangelical Presbyterians' ban on gay clergy signals that gay people aren't equal to heterosexuals, Bays said. "It discriminates against Christian people who want to share the word of God and says they aren't worthy."
In the center of the courtyard, Dave Freeman, whose father helped establish the church, has connections to both sides. He has signed up 47 members across both congregations for a retreat at Asilomar.
Freeman ushers in the sanctuary, where the traditionalists hold their classic service at 9 a.m., and he and his wife sing in the choir. He voted against the plan to leave the national denomination. "I was distressed that the vote would splinter the church, which I've diligently served for 60 years," Freeman said.
The doors on both sides are so open that the Rev. Baird's son was ordained into the Presbyterian USA church on St. Patrick's Day.
Andrew Dreitcer, associate professor of spirituality at the Claremont School of Theology, called Fremont's arrangement remarkable.
"These disputes have been very bitter and rancorous in other places," Dreitcer said. "They've handled it with compassion and found a way to address everyone's basic needs and yearnings, and to agree to disagree with some grace and love for each other."
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.