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Trans religious leaders say scripture should inspire inclusive congregations

At their most recent General Convention, the Episcopal church passed resolutions supporting gender-affirming care and developing resources to welcome and support transgender and nonbinary people.
Celeste Noche for NPR
At their most recent General Convention, the Episcopal church passed resolutions supporting gender-affirming care and developing resources to welcome and support transgender and nonbinary people.

PORTLAND, Ore.— Something as small as signs that say "men" and "women" on the bathrooms in a house of worship can shut the door to trans people.

"For me as a non-binary person, I've been to so many churches where they don't have a bathroom that I feel like I can use," says AJ Buckley, an Episcopal priest in Portland, Ore. "And so I'll just not go to the bathroom there."

Churches are tasked with living out the Bible's message both from the pulpit and in the pews.

And it's hard to connect to spiritual concerns if people there to sing and pray literally can't be physically comfortable.

That's why Saint David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, where Buckley has been associate rector for the past year, has made changes like putting up signs that say anyone can use any bathroom, including pronouns on name tags and preaching to "siblings in Christ" rather than brothers and sisters.

"Sometimes we'll say, 'God loves you,' but then not live that out in the church always," Buckley says. "And so, having those things say you're actually wanted here, [means] we're excited that you're here."

Reverend AJ Buckley serves as associate rector at St David of Wales Episcopal Church and on the Diocese of Oregon's task force implementing changes and education around gender issues.
/ Celeste Noche for NPR
/
Celeste Noche for NPR
Reverend AJ Buckley serves as associate rector at St David of Wales Episcopal Church and on the Diocese of Oregon's task force implementing changes and education around gender issues.

Pro-trans voices are emerging within Christianity

Evangelical Christianity has played a big role in the political debate around transgender issues, and the spate of legislation it's led to. And so that position is widely known: God created humans, separated into male and female – categories that are innate and immutable.

But religions speak with more than one voice. And other Christians are using their sacred texts to embrace a broader understanding of gender.

Shannon TL Kearns is the first openly transgender man ordained in the Old Catholic Church, a denomination that split from Rome after the first Vatican Council in the 19th century. He's co-founder of QueerTheology.com, and author of the book In The Margins: A Transgender Man's Journey with Scripture.

"The world of gender in the Bible is much more complex than I was taught growing up as an evangelical," says Kearns, pointing to numerous stories of biblical figures transgressing gender norms.

"We have women who are judges. We have men who spend their time in the kitchen. There are eunuchs, which were considered this kind of other third gender," he says.

Many Christians are rethinking the biblical stories they think they already know

Theology is stories. And Kearns says figuring out the Bible's message on trans people is partly about rediscovering these particular stories. But, in a larger sense, it's about asking harder questions of the stories Christians think they already know.

For example, in Genesis, angels come to Sodom and Gomorrah, and the townspeople threaten to rape them. The destruction of those cities is often seen as God's condemnation of homosexuality. But it could be read as a lesson in welcoming the stranger.

"When we look at a passage like Sodom and Gomorrah, we're looking at the places where — where might we still be inhospitable to people today?" asks Kearns. "Are we benefiting from systems that are hurting other people?"

Sometimes, showing hospitality is as easy as a sign on a bathroom door. And sometimes it's harder. Not every congregation, not every Christian, welcomes these changes. Theologian and ordained Baptist minister Robyn Henderson-Espinoza says conflict is not new to Christianity and that it's central to understanding the story of Jesus.

"I follow the story of a brown, Palestinian Jew who was executed by the Roman empire," says Henderson-Espinoza. "And that story is painful."

But Henderson-Espinoza, author of the book Body Becoming: A Path to Our Liberation, says this re-centering of the story from the point of view of the powerless rather than the point of view of the powerful is the work of Christianity. And that re-centering has implications for trans people today.

"I think that's how we bring heaven to Earth: Having these hard conversations and creating more relationships, and creating more opportunities to be in relationship with difference."

Reverend AJ Buckley wear trans pride themed shoes at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church. Signs at the church welcome people to use the bathroom of their choice.
/ Celeste Noche for NPR
/
Celeste Noche for NPR
Reverend AJ Buckley wear trans pride themed shoes at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church. Signs at the church welcome people to use the bathroom of their choice.

Trans people read themselves into scripture the same way all people see themselves in biblical characters

If you look in the Bible, stories of difference are there as well says theologian Kearns. The arc of scripture bringing the most marginalized people to the center has always been there. But he's not surprised it hasn't always been told that way.

"White, cisgender heterosexual men — they're reading from their specificity and particularity and calling it universal. And that's the real damage," Kearns says.

Kearns says it's not that reading from a particular perspective, a particular experience, is bad — it's how scripture has always been read and interpreted. People just need to be aware of what they're doing. And to expand the conversation to include all voices.

"I think that we all read ourselves into scripture," Kearns says. "I think the kicker is that folks from marginalized communities are being honest about the fact that that's what they're doing."

Trans Christians practice a faith that fits their bodies

Good narratives survive because they welcome a range of readers into their world. They don't define meaning — they reveal it for those who enter the story.

Austen Hartke, a Lutheran theologian and founder of the Transmission Ministry Collective, asks the question, "If you believe, like I do, that God made me trans on purpose, then what does that mean that I am allowed to do to steward my body, to live a healthy and full life?"

Hartke, who's also the author ​​of Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians, says, "In the same way that if God made somebody nearsighted, they're allowed to get glasses."

He says it's part of Jesus's call to abundant life. It's not desecration; it's co-creation. Holy work.

"Yes, our bodies are temples," Hartke says. "But temples change."

And Hartke says the blueprint for that change is in the text.

St. David of Wales Episcopal Church sees its mission as taking ordinary things (bread, wine, the congregation) and making them holy through prayer, song, and story.
/ Celeste Noche for NPR
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Celeste Noche for NPR
St. David of Wales Episcopal Church sees its mission as taking ordinary things (bread, wine, the congregation) and making them holy through prayer, song, and story.

"Even though Genesis One talks about binaries in the world, we know that those binaries aren't as clean cut as they are in this one piece of writing."

It's not just man and woman, land and water.

"So for instance," he says, "God creates the day and the night — it says nothing about dawn or dusk."

But these in-between places exist. Hartke says there's a richness to them and to the theology that emerges from them. Because they tell a fuller story of existence in this holy world.

"If we say God is the alpha and the omega, we don't mean God is just A and Z," Hartke says. "We mean God is all."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reverend AJ Buckley delivers a sermon at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church.
/ Celeste Noche for NPR
/
Celeste Noche for NPR
Reverend AJ Buckley delivers a sermon at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church.

Deena Prichep