I first came upon the First Baptist Church on December 24th, 2014, a homeless transgender woman with a very complicated situation and very little hope. Because of a complex set of circumstances that included discrimination, debt, family issues, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, I was looking at a $4111.25 debt and very few job prospects. I had technically and academically earned my 2nd Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology but because of a billing error in the amount of $4111.25, I could not officially have my diploma or access to my official transcripts.
I came to First Baptist Church for very modest and humble reasons– I missed going to church after so many years and wanted to see the lighting of Advent candles. The last time I had set foot in a church was for the memorial and funeral service for my grandmother, on Dec. 11th, 2002. Something really motivated me to come to First Baptist Church on Dec. 24th, on that cold day in 2014. I was alone and homeless on the holidays– my first holiday as a homeless person. And of course the holiday season around December always makes me think of my grandmother.
My grandmother and I had for many years been very loyal Methodists and we attended services nearly every Sunday. I was active in Methodist Youth Fellowship, was confirmed, and so on. Then when I moved, I could no longer attend the Methodist church I had grown up with. The years passed and when my grandmother became ill with Alzheimer’s, I suppose I never gave religion or spirituality or church much thought or consideration. I didn’t reject religion per se, but rather I didn’t feel connected as I once was.
When I came to First Baptist Church of Willimantic, I came only to celebrate the holiday and enjoy the ambiance and sacredness and specialness of Advent and looked to honor my grandmother and see if I could re-connect to what had been missing.
There was, in the back of my mind, some details and concerns I had to consider as well. For one thing, a lot had changed in my life since I walked into First Baptist Church. I came out of the closet and was trying to present and be Rachel McLeod. I knew that churches struggled with or had firm stances theologically, politically, or philosophically with the existence of LGBT persons. Some churches condemn and deny access to LGBT persons from entering their churches or becoming members of their congregations. Some churches welcome LGBT persons on the condition that they somehow undergo spiritual therapies that would render them somehow “normal” again– normal being heterosexual, gender normative individuals who intend to procreate and produce more heterosexual, gender normative Christian offspring. Some churches however, proclaim to be open and affirming of LGBT people, recognizing that we are all God’s creation and despite our sins and backgrounds and circumstances, we are all worthy of dignity and respect and inclusion in the worship of God. Open and affirming means no one has to sacrifice who they fundamentally are as a person in terms of identity and sexual preference in order to strive to be better people, better Christians. You don’t have to feel ashamed or guilty for striving to be sincere and honest with yourself and the Lord.
In coming to First Baptist Church, since my first visit on Dec. 24th of last year, I worried that I would be setting myself up for damnation and ridicule. I wasn’t going to jump to any conclusion that somehow First Baptist Church of Willimantic was going to be similar in kind to say the Westboro Baptist Church with their picketing of veteran funerals and their hate mongering and hostility towards the LGBT community. Yet I was concerned that members of the First Baptist Church may feel offended by my presence or threatened by my attendance to their church as a transgender person.
I worried that some may jump to conclusions based on myths or misinformation that I, as a transgender person, was somehow a sexual predator, child molester, or pedophile, or sexual deviant. There has been this obvious notion that somehow to be LGBT means one cannot be Christian. Or that to be Christian, one cannot condone or support the LGBT community. Christianity and LGBT identity seemed to be forever fixed as separate realms of exclusivity.
The truth is, I identify as transgender. I have no agenda other than to promote equality, justice, fairness, and access to education for all persons. I am an advocate for LGBT, disabled, children, elderly, anyone, everyone. I also identify as Christian. I also identify as a published writer, an academic, an amateur historian, a hockey fan, a ballerina, and a gymnastics fan. I am many things to many people and wear many different hats.
This being said, as I came to know more about the First Baptist Church in Willimantic, I came to understand that this was a “church with no walls”. What that means to me, as a transgender person may be different than how others define the phrase, but to me, a church without walls is one that is not confined to boundaries or limitations. It cannot be pent up or held to a box or label or even physical location. It is an open church. Open to all who seek it. It is a church that does not hide from itself either. It is not ashamed of its identity or its messages. It is not ashamed of its many ministries. It is a church that seeks to be approachable, a vital part of the community. It wants to open its arms to all who come to visit or worship.
Is it open and affirming?
I have been attending this church faithfully and loyally since Dec. 24th, 2014. I have never been disrespected, I have never been humiliated, or felt shamed for being who I am. I have never been made to feel unwelcomed. I have never encountered any hostility or animosity for who I am as a person. There may be differences in views and opinions on politics, sports, theology, music, etc… but these differences have never undermined anyone’s ability to give and receive respect, dignity, or Christian fellowship.
To highlight this point–
Last weekend, the church presented me with a check for $4111.25 — the exact amount I needed to pay off my outstanding tuition bill at Eastern Connecticut State University. With this check, I was able to secure my 2nd Bachelor’s diploma in Sociology– a degree that took me one year to complete while I was facing homelessness, discrimination, and complicated family issues.
The church members responsible for this very generous contribution or donation did not have to present this check. They were under no financial obligation to me. They were not in any way responsible for the circumstances that led to my homelessness or debt or circumstances. They blessed me as they so felt inspired or moved to bless me– of their own free will, as Christians moved by the Holy Spirit and by their considerations and private motivations.
The church has enabled me to reclaim a huge portion of my life– a portion of life I had earned and worked towards despite harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence. This donation is not a matter of throwing money at a problem to win a convert or to win publicity as some kind of clever stunt to win public favor. It is a confirmation that Christian generosity still exists– that Christians are invested in the well-being of others, regardless of their circumstances. More than that, this donation was confirmation that a church can be and often is, a family that wants each family member to succeed in life spiritually, physically, emotionally, and practically.
On another level, this donation, personally, was confirmation that these generous Christian brothers and sisters, saw me as someone worthy of their kindness and generosity. Whether they saw me as Rachel or David, as transgender or not was irrelevant in their considerations and determinations. I was worthy–bottom line. In that sense, they accepted me as I was and they saw me as who they wanted to see me as– worthy of God’s gifts and worthy of Christian generosity. If they felt that I, as a transgender person identifying as Rachel, was not worthy, than this story would not have been written and I would not be struggling to find the appropriate words to express my utmost gratitude and respect for this church.
While I can say that my being transgender had nothing to do with their generous act, I can also say with confidence that my being transgender did not prevent them from being Christian, nor generous, nor caring, and compassionate people. People may assume that all Christians would thumb their noses at the LGBT community or have reservations about including LGBT persons in their church– and some may assume that Christian charity and generosity is limited only to an exclusive circle of fellow, like-minded Christians. I can say without reservation that as a witness and recipient of Christian love, kindness, and generosity– not every Christian is a bigoted, intolerant, anti-LGBT stereotype.
I share this story in hopes that other LGBT persons of faith consider reaching out to places of worship– let them get to know you. Don’t let fear prevent you from making connections and destroying myths and stereotypes. I share this story in hopes that non-LGBT persons of faith consider their beliefs, our shared humanity, and give the LGBT community a chance to address your questions and concerns and to show you we are good, sincere, honest people who strive to live in peace and harmony with others.
I also share this story as a witness of God’s power through the Holy Spirit and the generosity of true Christians.