Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” (Jonah 3:1-2)
It was not the first time that I heard the voice of the Lord, that moment sitting in the pews of First UMC Newberg. I was 20 then, working as a youth group leader as I finished my undergraduate studies. I was in my usual place in the balcony, flanked on both sides by a pack of unruly teenagers. Below me, Rev. Jane Shaffer broke the bread of the Eucharist and held it out for the congregation — do this in remembrance of me. At the back of my mind, the voice of the Lord whispered, someday, that will be you.
My father is a Presbyterian minister, and at the time I was attending a Christian university, so the church was already a comfortable home. Even before those words came to me, I had been exploring some form of call to ministry. The path has not been linear, but that moment continues to be the fulcrum on which everything hangs in balance.
When I say I grew up in the church, I mean it literally. I bounced on my mother’s knee during services as an infant, watching my father preach. I learned landscaping from congregation members during church clean-up days; I helped with Sunday School as soon as I was too old to be in it. I served on church committees from the time I was 13, and as an Elder in high school. As soon as I left to attend college, I started seeking out my new church home — finding it in the liturgy of Evensong at the Episcopal church across the street. During the school year I helped with youth groups; over the summer, I worked for Christian camps and disaster relief agencies. After graduation, I spent a year with the Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Northern Ireland. There was never a time, from birth until age 24, that I did not spend a significant amount of my time in a house of God.
Three years after hearing my call so clearly, I was still feeling my way through life. I lived with my parents while working part-time at an Episcopal cathedral, and was in the closet about my sexuality and gender identity, deeply discontented. My priest encouraged me: “spend a year away from the church. Don’t even go on Sundays. See if you can live without being in ministry — and if not, then come back.” I packed most of my possessions into my Honda and drove south to live with my aunt in San Diego.
Within two weeks of moving to California, I was bicycling to Sunday services at the nearest Episcopal church. It didn’t take long before I was singing in the choir. I fell in love with an amazing woman, finally finding the courage to come out as queer. She began attending church with me and teaching Sunday School. We were married in that sanctuary, under an enormous stained-glass window, to the music of an organ that stretches to the ceiling. Meanwhile, I discovered a love of teaching and pursued a career in museum education. It seemed I could find my vocation outside the church. And yet — every so often, when I stepped into the sanctuary with the Eucharist laid out on the altar, I would be reminded of that moment in a different sanctuary, a different state, a different time . . .
Shortly after getting married, I came out as non-binary transgender in some social circles, but not in church. When my wife and I moved back to Washington state, I took the opportunity to begin using a new name and pronouns full-time. This was the change that finally made me take the priest’s advice from years before. I could no longer step into a church building and be reliably seen for who I was. Well-meaning parishioners at a new church would gleefully introduce me to fellow worshippers and immediately use the wrong pronouns, even when corrected. Pastors preached the same tired old interpretations of Biblical passages instead of the queer readings I longed for, obscuring the radical undertones I knew the text carried. The sense of peace and call I had always felt in a sanctuary was shattered.
So I left the church. Sundays were filled with family, friends, finding God in the outdoors. I listened to podcasts about queer theology. I found my religious community in LGBTQ online spaces. I was also cultivating an awareness of social systems of oppression. Becoming anti-racist, anti-capitalist, militantly queer. Beginning to decolonize my worldview.
In the last few years, I’ve witnessed so much harm done at the hands of the church.
The Christian university I graduated from forced a Black transgender student out when they refused to accommodate his request for equal housing. When professors joined alumni in speaking out about the incident, they were threatened with losing their jobs should they disagree with the college’s anti-queer, anti-trans policies.
The United Methodist Church silenced queer and trans activists, several of whom I know personally, during its 2019 General Conference. The conference went on to uphold and strengthen discriminatory policies towards LGBTQ people.
How long, O Lord?
Christianity was born in a land groaning under the hands of occupiers, midwifed by a man who offered succor to those most on the margins. Yet since Constantine, it has become not a religion of resistance but a pawn of power. The Christian church today is enmeshed with white supremacy, colonialism, misogyny, anti-queer and anti-transgender oppression. True liberation is sacrificed in the name of unity.
Our country’s legacy of oppression is creeping back into the light, from the shadows where it had been hiding. White supremacists openly lay claim to local bars, march in the streets, shoot at counter-protesters. 31 transgender people were murdered in the United States in 2019, most of them Black trans women; many more died by suicide as a result of transphobia. The forces of capitalism are laying waste to the environment, injuring and imprisoning Native people who stand up against them. And now these same forces lay waste to our bodies, as economic concerns outweigh safety in the midst of a global pandemic. The voice of the church condoning these acts is louder than the voice of the faithful condemning them.
Religious leadership must confess the sins of transphobia and homophobia. Religious leadership must confess this country’s original sin, white supremacy. We must do it now, over the next five years, until systems of oppression are overthrown and liberation is manifest for all people. Unless we as a religious community repent from the trauma we have wreaked on this land, the trauma we continue to perpetuate on Black, brown, queer, trans, and female bodies, the church is a stumbling block. Systems of oppression harm everyone within them, even the people who hold privilege.
By the time the religious right ushered in the election of Donald Trump, I still claimed faith, but no longer claimed the church.
A wave of anti-transgender legislation swept the country, mostly in the form of “bathroom bills.” My home state of Washington saw an initiative on the ballot which would reverse the law allowing people to use whichever public restroom matched their gender identity. I banded together with two friends — a queer/trans former Christian who left the church when she came out, and a very sweet straight cisgender ally active in the church — to lead conversations about the transgender experience for political organizations. Our initial goal was to help fight the ballot initiative through personal stories; research shows that cisgender people who have sustained conversation with an openly transgender person are more likely to oppose anti-trans legislation than those who have not had that experience. After the initiative was defeated, we turned our attention to churches, seeking to help them create more welcoming spaces for queer and trans folks.
I stepped into the sanctuary of Fox Island UCC to speak alongside my fellow activists. Instantly, I was reminded of that sense of calling, now more than ten years ago. I shook it off. As my identity and body have changed — as I no longer see myself as a woman — that image of a woman serving at the Lord’s table no longer seemed to fit. Returning home that evening, I asked aloud, “What do you want?” Immediately the answer came, you know. I saw again Rev. Shaffer breaking bread, and shook my head. No. That is not me. I do not want to engage with an organization that has perpetuated so much harm. I do not want to give my voice to the forces of colonization and white supremacy. The image of a middle-aged woman with Eucharist in her hands disappeared, replaced by an image of myself looking masculine, in a church sanctuary, laughing in holy joy, engaged in the work of queer liberation.
For the past five years, like Jonah, I have been running from my calling. Like Jonah, I see the wrongdoing of the place I am called to minister in. I could not see a path to redemption for an organization so closely bound to oppressive systems. Frankly, I still cannot — but fortunately, I don’t have to know all the answers. As Jonah asserts, “salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), and not from me.
I am not sure exactly what form my ministry will take. I know that many of my queer and trans friends have been forced out of the church due to discriminatory policies or simply not feeling welcomed as their full selves. While some have found a spiritual home elsewhere, or made their own, many are still seeking sacred space. I have experience facilitating trainings about how to best support LGBTQ folks in a variety of settings, from classrooms to camps to churches, and expect to continue doing that work. I am seeking theological education in part to be able to more effectively speak the language of pastors and religious institutions. I know from personal experience that queerness is holy, and I can hold my own in most discussions with laypeople, but I desire a deeper understanding of theology and our tradition.
My trans and queer identity is not only non-negotiable but God-breathed, and I crave a Christian community where I can seek my path among others who understand this. At seminary, I have found a community with strong commitments to social justice. This gives me hope that the church, like Nineveh, yet has some good in it.
My relationship with the church has shifted significantly since I first felt a sense of call. But I still feel that, like the pastor holding up the Eucharist, I have a part to play in the creation of sacred space for my queer kin.