On her last Sunday morning with our congregation, Sasha stood before us resplendent in a lovely dress and a new haircut. Even as her voice quivered and farewell tears slipped down her face, she presented herself with a poise and outer joy that came with the anticipation of starting over elsewhere. Finally, Sasha was free to be herself.
Sasha had shown up at church a year earlier. She took her place in the pews alongside the teachers, bankers, plumbers, lawyers, short order cooks, shift workers and retirees who make up our varied congregation. She enthusiastically joined the church and our adult Sunday school class, offering meaningful insights, the wisdom of life and impressive Biblical literacy.
A banker with international responsibilities, she even led a class on Hinduism based on the knowledge she’d gained on regular business trips and long stays in India. The congregation embraced and respected her.
One day, she called to make an appointment with me. She had something important to discuss. Over coffee, she told me she had made a big decision. Up until to then, you see, we had known Sasha as a man. We were part of the world that viewed her as a man because that was what we saw outwardly, not how Sasha felt. But now she could no longer live in the body she was born with. The news was that the person sitting opposite me over coffee had chosen to transition. That person had always felt like Sasha anyway, always. Now the body would catch up with the soul.
We talked through the upcoming surgeries and the need for lots and lots of prayer from the congregation. As we talked, I saw a person yearning and eager to be at peace with herself, with the world and with her God. Despite the physical difficulties and recovery ahead, I saw hope and the anticipation of the inner joy that would come when one’s body finally matches their being.
Because Sasha’s family in Charlotte had rejected her, she had asked to be transferred to another city. After her move, the church prayed for her and Sasha’s employer went to extraordinary lengths to support her through her transition, including orienting her employees in India in how to understand her choice and support her when she returned to work. We still stay in touch. The congregation holds her in prayer, though we are lesser without her.
Love has no finish line.
Less than a decade after its courageous votes to embrace gay and lesbian people fully, as officers and in permitting same-gender weddings, the Presbyterian Church (USA) last year took perhaps an even more bold step toward inclusivity. Approving an overture from the Presbytery of New Castle, the 223rd General Assembly affirmed the “full dignity and humanity of people of all gender identities.”
“Standing in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people,” the assembly affirmed its commitment to “the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities.”
Back at the church I serve, a compassionate, visionary and determined group of elders and members had moved months earlier to help Caldwell be a place of refuge and healing for yet one more set of oppressed children of God. In 2017, they organized a multi-part series on understanding the transgender experience and invited other faith communities to walk with us as we learned. Then, last summer we brought in a local non-profit leader to walk us through what it means to be non-binary.
So it was that in the fall of 2018, multiple Caldwell committees began consideration of several recommendations from our Touchpoint Committee, which advocates for broader understanding of the LGBTQ experience. After study by the Worship, Missions and Justice and Discovery and Engagement Committees, the session adopted the following:
That Caldwell strive to make the language used in worship more inclusive.
That Caldwell use these language changes as teaching points during worship.
That Caldwell strive to use more inclusive language in its website and in other online and printed communications.
All of this was to advance our mission to make church safe again for those whom the church had wounded. After its unlikely resurrection a decade ago, this urban congregation grew into a 325-member, intersectional community of believers and seekers, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, highly educated and high school dropout, from many backgrounds in faith and from neighborhoods across our four-county metro area.
Lisa Raymaker, the remarkably knowledgeable, focused and capable elder and LGBTQ advocate who led us through this process, made these points in a letter to the congregation.
“People who identify as LGBTQ are looking and listening for certain things in order to feel comfortable and fully welcomed in a space. People who identify as trans and non-binary, especially, listen for language that respects their gender identity and look for people who accept them as they are….
“We are working to make the language we use to refer to each other more inclusive. An example could be instead of saying ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ we may say ‘beloved’ or ‘family in Christ.’ Instead of inviting boys and girls to the children’s sermon, we may say ’young people’ or ‘children.’ This is one more way for us to practice radical welcome, and show God’s unconditional love for and acceptance of all people.”
As important as anything, we remind ourselves again and again that this is an aspiration. We will get it wrong, a lot, at first — me as much as any as I try to rewire my mind and heart to new verbal patterns after a half-century so deeply conditioned by my experience as an affluent, straight, white, privileged male whose adversity pales in comparison to many.
“This is a work in progress and we will learn together as we go,” Lisa reminds us. “We all still maintain our own identities, whatever they may be. Now we are just sharing our space with others.”
Why go to the trouble?
We recognize that others beyond our part of the body of Christ will vigorously disagree. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” the trope goes, much less what critics will say about what they perceive as the irrational randomness of gender fluidity. Others will say this only advances the identity politics they perceive as leading to our nation’s deep divisions. We’ve been regularly picketed by the Klan before. They may come back.
Why risk it? Why go to the trouble?
Because, as the General Assembly affirmed last summer, the church has “participated in systemic and targeted discrimination against transgender people, and we have been complicit in violence against them.”
Because God’s call for justice doesn’t leave out any of God’s children.
And, because lives are at stake. Consider:
Transgender, queer and non-binary people can lose up to 90 percent of their relationships with friends and family when they live as their authentic selves.
Transgender people are four times more likely to live in poverty.
Forty to 50 percent of transgender youth will have attempted suicide by the age of 20, compared to 1.6 percent of the general population.
Seventy-eight percent of transgender youth experience some sort of harassment at school.
Transgender and non-binary people, especially youth, who have at least one support system (family or school or church or other organization) reduce their risk of suicide to 4 percent.
We understand that this walk is not for everyone. Many PC (USA) churches choose not to conduct same-gender marriages. Others condemn LGBTQ people outright. Still others want to welcome God’s gay and lesbian children, but they confess their lack of familiarity or are still figuring out all that is involved in turning the words on the sign, “All are welcome,” into reality in the pews. Organizations like the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and More Light Presbyterians stand ready with advice and resources for those who want to begin or advance this journey.
What our congregation has experienced in a decade of expanding God’s call to inclusivity and hospitality, as well as advocacy and public witness, is that our towns and cities are full of LGBTQ people who desperately seek a community of faith where they can walk with God alongside others and where they can serve as the hands and feet of Christ without judgment or rejection. What we’ve seen is that, once they feel accepted and healed, these disciples become tireless, deeply committed workers in God’s vineyard.
Since Sasha, we’ve been joined in worship by other transgender and non-binary people. Last summer, a college intern felt comfortable enough to begin using the “they” pronoun as they embraced their self-understanding as a queer person. We continue to learn and share the gospel, as did the Biblical evangelist Phillip in Acts 8, who was asked by the Ethiopian eunuch (banker to the queen, another who did not fit systemic sexual norms) to explain the scriptures.
Sasha has progressed with the surgeries involved in her transition and has received a promotion to vice president at the bank. But it is her last Sunday with us in Charlotte that we will most remember as she stood in front of the congregation to say goodbye.
“God loves me, not because of who I am, but because of who God is,” she said. “So does our Creator ask too much of Creation to love all humanity, not because of who humanity is, but because of who we are as children of God?”
Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn is pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, N.C., and a director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. This article was first published in the Presbyterian Outlook and is reprinted with permission.