The story of how I became the first transgender man ordained to the Old Catholic priesthood is a complicated one. I grew up a fundamentalist evangelical in a rural part of Pennsylvania. Church was my life. We were there every time the doors were open; Sunday school and church on Sunday mornings, youth group on Sunday night, Bible quiz practice on Wednesday evenings. I was there so often doing various things that when I hit high school they gave me my own set of keys to the church! I would arrive early Sunday morning, pack a lunch, and stay through until the end of youth group at night.
I began to sense a call to ministry at a young age. I’m not sure I can articulate what this call was; I didn’t see a bright light or hear a voice from heaven, but I knew, in the deepest part of my heart, that this is what I needed to dedicate my life to. But there was a problem: the world assumed that I was female and my church didn’t ordain women. This is before I had a sense of my own sexuality, before I had any language for my gender identity.
Starting in seventh grade I was homeschooled and so church became my main source of social interaction. I love the people in my youth group but, I was an awkward teenager, uncomfortable in my changing body. I wore extra large clothes to hid my developing chest. I tucked my longish hair up into baseball caps and tried to get my mom to let me shop in the guy’s section (mostly to no avail). The leaders in my youth group wanted me to dress differently, worried that some of the older people in the church were mistaking me for a boy, but I refused to budge.
I had a sense that I was called to be a minister people like me; people who didn’t fit into the neat little boxes that church and society wanted to put them in, people who didn’t have it all together, people who were marginalized and oppressed. I didn’t understand what my ministry would look like but I pursued it anyway, majoring in youth ministry at a conservative Christian college. Throughout my time in college I was told that I could take the courses and major in youth ministry but that I would never be allowed to be a youth pastor because of my gender. Thankfully, I did an internship my senior year at a church that ordained women. For the first time I was introduced to people who I could see were good and faithful Christians but who held a different theology than what I had grown up with. My interactions with them planted seeds that would take years to bear fruit.
After college I took a job at an American Baptist church as their full time youth pastor, near the town I had grown up in. I moved back in with my mom. I was thrilled with the idea of working there, but since I was living with my mom and since I hadn’t been out during the interview process I knew that I needed to stay closeted. I didn’t think it would be that big of a problem, and for a while it wasn’t. Not being able to tell people the truth about who you really are takes its toll after a while.
Three years into that position the walls I had built around my heart began to crack. I could no longer hide who I was and who I loved. I grew weary of pretending to be something I was not. It wasn’t that I was actively hiding; I still wore the clothing that made me feel comfortable and I supported the one youth that came out as gay. But I felt like I could never talk about my personal life. I had to be careful what I said to people and so I held everyone at arm’s length. After three years of that, I knew that it was time to move on when they hired a new senior minister that was homophobic. I could no longer be silent about my identity nor could I work with someone who wasn’t supportive. I resigned my youth pastor position and thought that my life in the church as a whole was coming to an end.
I took a job waiting tables at a chain restaurant trying to make sense of why God would call me to ministry while knowing that I was a queer person. At this point I still had no language for my gender identity but I had started to come out to close friends as gay. I was able to come out to my co-workers at the restaurant which was a huge relief. It was the first time I had been anywhere that I could be completely myself. They supported me and encouraged me.
After a year of waiting tables and praying with fervor I sensed that God was saying that my life in ministry wasn’t over. It was terrifying because I still didn’t know any other ordained clergy who were LGBT. I had no idea if I would be able to find a church that would welcome me and let me serve. I couldn’t really understand why God was calling me, but I had the sense that I needed to follow. I found a seminary that was kind of close to home and that I knew was liberal. I didn’t know anything else about it and it was the only place I applied. After I sent in the application someone asked me where I had applied and when I told them “Union Theological Seminary in New York” their response was a hushed, “Oh, that’s a good school!” And sure enough, it was a very good school. A place where so many powerful people had come to study, to learn about justice, and to go on to change the world. Bonhoeffer spent time there and so did Reinhold Neibuhr. James Cone, the father of black theology, teaches there still. My time at Union would be transformative both personally and theologically.
While in seminary I finally had language around my gender identity through interactions with people who knew transgender folks and could recommend books to read. In my second year I came out as transgender and began my transition. It was a bumpy road; it took me another year or more to have the courage to come out to my mom. There was a professor who made transphobic comments in class and classmates that refused to use the proper pronouns for me. Along with the relational stresses I also worried that I would never be able to find a place in an established church. In some ways I was right.
Throughout seminary and beyond I had begun to blog about my experiences as a transgender person of faith and was committed to sharing my story with other people on social media. I wanted to let people know that they weren’t alone, so I told my stories and became active on Twitter, trying to connect with other people and be an encouragement. I also wanted to be a resource to churches so that maybe the next time someone came out and transitioned they would have an easier time.
Two years after seminary I was floundering in my search for a denomination that would ordain me. It wasn’t that I experienced outright rejection, but I saw friends who had gone through the process, been approved, and then not been able to find any church that would hire them. Or the process to ordination involved lengthy and expensive psychological testing (from the 1950’s) that was designed to fail transgender people. Then someone from the Old Catholic church reached out on Twitter. He wanted help getting the word out that the Old Catholic church was willing to ordain transgender people. I was excited to hear about the church, but at first I wasn’t sure that it would be an option for me. I hadn’t had much experience with the Catholic church and wasn’t sure if that would be a barrier.
I had, however, been inspired by Catholic thinkers like Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, and Daniel Berrigan. Their lives and witness led me to learn more about Catholicism and liturgy and I was curious but wasn’t sure that I would be welcomed. But the more I talked with the Archbishop the more I knew that this was where I needed to be and that the things I thought were barriers could be easily overcome.
He explained that the Old Catholic Church had a long history; originally part of the Roman Catholic church, they split in 1870 over the right to elect their own Bishops. After coming to the United States around 100 years ago they were a growing, independent, progressive Catholic group that welcomes and ordains women, LGBTQ folks, and people who are married, partnered, or divorced. They are concerned with new church starts and social justice work.
I joined with them and was ordained. My ordination to the diaconate (a one year transitional period designed for further study and training) took place in a convention center in Philadelphia. A line of robed priests and Bishops walked into one of the conference rooms in the middle of the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference. I was nervous, but so proud to be making a public witness that this was a church that was open for all people and where all people were welcome to take part in communion.
A year later I was ordained a priest during a Mass in Minneapolis (where I now live). It got a lot of press coverage which was overwhelming, but also thrilling. I was so excited to get the message out there that God loves everyone. I was finally able to stand in my own truth as the person God had made me to be. I was unafraid and so proud to be able to tell my story and to show other people that there was a place for them in the church.
Now I’m working to start a church in Minneapolis, House of the Transfiguration, that combines the best of evangelical methodology (singable music, media, social media concern) with the tradition of the Catholic Mass. Our vision is “transformed people, transforming Minneapolis.” We welcome all people to the communion table, work for justice, and make space for people who have been disconnected from the church or never connected at all.
For those of us on the front lines of reaching marginalized people and those of us who are charting a new way forward for the church (and new ways of being church in the world), the road is hard. All too often we lack support both emotionally and financially from larger institutions who are reluctant to change. It can be disheartening to do this work. Every day it is exhausting trying to create a balanced life, a sustainable life, and alongside a viable ministry.
I do the work of House of the Transfiguration for no pay. I work a full time job with youth at a mainline church that only covers some of my bills while trying to raise extra support to ensure that I can continue in ministry for the long term. On good days I can see it as an adventure, on bad days it’s a challenge. But I’m following my calling to create a space for people like me who have nowhere else to go and who long for a church where they can bring all of themselves to the table and bring the good news of God’s love to everyone.
For those of us who are called to the wild world of new church starts or other ministries to those on the margins, know that we are not alone and we are not laboring in vain. We are doing important and life changing work. And the work we do matters. I get emails from people all over the world who are desperate to be a part of a community where they can bring all of who they are to the table. By creating these spaces we are literally saving lives. I know it can be hard sometimes; we can feel alone and underresourced; but in those moments we need to remember why we do what we do and who we are called to walk with. And, if need be, we reach out to one another on Twitter or other social media so that we can know that we are not alone.
May all of God’s blessings be yours as you do this important and life-giving work in the world.
If you’d like to support my work, you can contribute to my campaign here: http://www.gofundme.com/9ib8w0