The church saved my life. Jesus saved me too, of course. Jesus forgave my sin, made me whole, granted the gift of reconciliation and redemption. The church, the Body of Christ, saved my earthly self more than once. Stereotypical church ladies, attentive church elders and listening church pastors each repeatedly saved my life. They didn’t know their care, attention, listening and love saved me when I was a frightened, shy kid in a new country or when my marriage was frayed to the point of breaking or when one of my children was in crisis. Again and again, during the lowest, scariest, most chaotic seasons of my life, the people of the church saved me through their compassion, kindness and grace.
When I enter a church, my body relaxes, feels safe and anticipates warmth and acceptance. To be sure, those expectations of compassion and kindness and love don’t always come to fruition. The church has hurt me deeply from time to time, but those painful experiences are outliers, exceptions, not the norm. Loving the church comes easily to me because the church first loved me. However, for far too many the church is the last place they want to go for comfort, care or hope. When they have sought mercy and grace, they were given judgment and guilt. The church has wounded and killed in the name of Jesus, historically, expansively, insidiously.
Last fall, I participated in a conference designed to equip chaplains, pastors and others to care for transgender, gender non-conforming, nonbinary and gender fluid people and their families. The conference took place in a local Presbyterian church. One of the members of the planning team reminded us before the conference began that for some walking into a church creates stress, tension, fear and pain. He reminded us that for a lot of people attending this conference, it took extraordinary courage just to come into a church building.
Some of the stories bravely shared over the course of the conference confirmed the truth that for many (far too many), the church was not a place of salvation, but condemnation. There were other beautiful, life-giving stories of churches and church people who had welcomed, loved and embraced people. And yet we were reminded at every plenary session, “No photography” — because for some conferees, living in the world as the people they know themselves to be would risk losing jobs, relationships, even their lives.
This sobering reality caused me to consider the transgender friends of my children and their families. I wondered if they had the support of a church family, if they would be welcomed in our congregations. I desperately want our faith communities to be places of radical hospitality for all people. For this to happen, we must work for a church that embraces our LGBTQIA+ siblings and their families.
One of the conference leaders said this: When people tell you who they are, believe them. Do we believe those who tell us they are transgender or nonbinary or gender expansive? If not, why not? Imagine others telling you that you must be mistaken about your own identity.
The Body of Christ is called to see each person as the beloved child of God they are. Disciples of Jesus Christ are not instructed to understand anyone; we are commanded to love everyone. Faith, life, relationships and people are not problems to be solved; all are mysteries to be humbly, patiently, gently, reverently encountered and explored.
Just a few years ago I learned what cisgender meant. A few months ago, I heard the phrase “dead name” (referring to one’s birth name before transition). I struggle mightily with getting pronouns correct. My vocabulary now includes the phrases nonbinary and gender fluid. I still have a lot to learn. But I know without doubt that each and every person, trans, cis, fluid, nonbinary is fearfully and wonderfully made by the God who loves us more than we could ever hope and imagine. I long for all of us to know this truth and live it. I pray that the church and church people will be the ones to share this good news with everyone. It could save someone’s life. I know the radical love of God, shared in word and deed by followers of Jesus, saved mine.
Grace and peace,