Introduction: As Churchill Park United Church in Winnipeg, MB 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 Rev. Gary Paterson and his partner Tim Stevenson, we all decided that we did not know much about the transgender community. So with our quest for learning, we chose to focus on the topic of transgender folks. We contacted all of the Affirming ministries in 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.
We would also 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).
Transgender transformation: By Karen E. Toole, June 2016
It was a glorious spring Saturday in May. On May 7th Churchill Park United Church sponsored a truly visionary event. 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 some media announcement. 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.”
Maybe the problem was with the word “affirm”? In a city the size of Winnipeg registration was approximately fifty. That was a disappointment but nothing else about the day was in any way disillusioning. or 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.
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. So 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.
This event 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!
What happened that day at that workshop was exactly what was described in the title. We began with a simple, inclusive worship. And then we moved on LGBTQ-101 focusing on terminology, pronouns, difference between orientation and gender, 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 rather as “here is a sacred creation seeking to love and be loved”.
What followed were three storytellers; three transgendered persons who took the courageous risk of sharing their intimate struggle with a crowd of strangers. Three people who had already been shamed and shunned, broken and beaten, told honest, funny, hopeful stories of why love matters. Their 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, but he was much more than that. His focus was truly on how we all have an opportunity to do the deep journey of souls to find the courage to authentically be who we know ourselves to be. He spoke of giving birth to their children, and how he and his male partner are often asked, “where is their mother?”. 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, truly in reality 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 could have been the person next door, your neighbour and mine. She 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, and 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.
Science and medicine have come a long way. Just because we can do it, should we do it? Where does our understanding of God fit in all of this reality of change? These questions will confront and confound, and they should. 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.
Until we come together to understand that we fall in love with a soul which for a time lives in a body, we will go on killing those who do not fit some absolute fear filled definition of the right body, or the right gender, or the right race or the right orientation. And each time we do we massacre a miracle. We choose to refuse the ultimate meaning of sacred love made manifest in all of us, each of us a unique and wonderful creation of body, mind and soul seeking to be spiritually alive.
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.