By The Rev. Karen E. Toole
Churchill Park United Church in Winnipeg sponsored a truly visionary event this past May. From my perspective it was not just one more step along the road of gender and orientation understanding. It was a giant leap. The event had been advertised through all the appropriate channels of the United Church, as well as in the media. I expected a filled church. The title of the event could not have been more informative and direct. It was clearly and creatively named, “Spirit and Soul – not determined by Anatomy, coming to know and affirm the transgender community through personal stories.” In a city the size of Winnipeg registration was approximately fifty. Perhaps the problem was with the word ‘affirm’? The number of registrants was a disappointment but nothing else about the day was disillusioning. For me, with over forty years in ministry, it was one of the most informative, enlightening and inspiring days I have spent within the workshop world of the church.
Deep Sharing, Deep Learning
This event first took root as our church journeyed through the affirming process. We shared stories of family members and friends who passed through our lives hiding their “Spirit and Soul”. This learning experience brought us all closer in our church family. We are a congregation that likes to take on learning challenges. After a discussion with the former moderator The Very Rev. Gary Paterson and his partner The Rev. Tim Stevenson, we all decided that we did not know much about the transgender community. With our quest for learning, we chose to focus on coming to a greater understanding of transgenderism. We contacted all of the Affirming United Churches in the Winnipeg Presbytery and received a wonderful response. As we met we all shared our stories. Various members contributed names of presenters that we eventually invited to speak at the event. It was truly a group effort.
What happened that day at that workshop was exactly what was described in the title. We began with a simple, inclusive worship. We moved on LGBTQ-101, focusing on terminology, pronouns, the difference between orientation and gender, and finding safety. For those gathered in the small table groups, we learned about the reality of how we are all of us “gender-bred persons”; our sex is assigned, but our orientations, our identities, our feelings are not.
For me, the honest level of this presentation was more than a breath of fresh air; it was a forceful wind of hope-filled change. We connected body, mind and soul as sex, orientation and heart. In other words we saw other human beings not through the lens of where do they fit, but here is a sacred creation seeking to love and be loved.
Three storytellers then spoke. Three transgendered persons took the courageous risk of sharing their intimate struggle with a crowd of strangers. These three people who had already been shamed and shunned, broken and beaten told honest, funny, hopeful stories of why love matters.
What We Heard
The speakers’ honest stories surpassed every inspiring sermon I have ever listened to on the topic of divine creation and holy expression of that creation. And why was that? It had everything to do with their incarnational reality, their authenticity, their open honest, vulnerability and their love stories!
The first speaker was focused on transgendered parenting, yet so much more. He spoke of how we all have an opportunity to find the courage to authentically be who we know ourselves to be. He honestly spoke of giving birth to their children, and how he and his male partner are often asked where their mother is. Over and over again he has been forced to come out and face the shock and judgement, and yet he told other stories of support, acceptance and care. At one point he spoke of the need for breast milk, and how he could contribute, because it was, as he put it, “human milk for human babies.” And the wonderful thing was that his milk was just as valuable as any other breast milk given. While he spoke the two children of these two young men played happily in our midst.
Another speaker spoke of her transgendered refugee experience. She came with the support of her United Church congregation, and was gently interviewed by one of her friends from that faith community. Hers was a story of running for her life because she had become a monster in her family’s eyes. She had not only mental scars but physical scars to remind her constantly of how our fear can become hate, how taking the risk of choosing to be herself can lead to choosing death.
In the middle of these two speakers was a woman who lost everything, no severance, no financial stability because they were due to the man she no longer was. She spent 35 years in what she had described as non-authentic way of life. The journey she now faces is strengthened every day by the reality that it is has gone from that inner phobia and outer fear to authenticity and respect for herself.
Our Continued Learning
I have walked with the United Church as we gradually in the late 60’s and 70’s began to affirm that we do indeed have physical bodies, with physical needs, and strong physical feelings. At that time we began to talk about being physically “In God’s Image…Male and Female”. And then we took all the unrest about this incredible discovery of our physicality as creations of body, mind, emotion and soul, and we wrote an affirmation of human sexuality titled, “Gift, Dilemma and Promise”. It was one of the first ever statements on human sexuality created by a Christian denomination. Those who read believed we meant it, and the doors were open finally for homosexual persons to emerge into the light of acceptance.
Understanding transgenderism is the natural next step. Events like this one at Churchill Park United might, should, and could be happening in churches across our nation. Maybe they are, and I am just out of touch. I hope so. I hope to God they are!
Questions will confront and confound and they should. Science and medicine have come a long way. Where does our understanding of God fit in all of this reality of change? Values, ethics, morals are a part of this, but this is not a debate to be had about us and them. This is all of us, our friends and family and neighbours.
It was a brave workshop, a brave day. It can happen again and again in all our churches and communities and if it does, I predict that attendance will grow.
We would like to acknowledge the funding provided by Winnipeg Presbytery (The United Church of Canada) Church Development Inc. (CDI) and The United Church of Canada Foundation Seeds of Hope Grant Program.