Of all the places I might hear these words, I certainly wasn't expecting them to come from the podium at church last Sunday. But I did, and it was part of an amazing experience.
Back in 2009, our congregation voted to sanctify same-sex marriages by a margin of almost 2:1. Three years ago, our congregation underwent a process of education and discernment to become an Affirming Ministry, and two years ago this month, we did it. This certification from Affirm United allows members of the LGBTQ+ community to know that we are committed to committed to creating a safe and welcoming space for them.
I know, I know: "But aren't churches supposed to be welcoming for everyone anyways?" You're not wrong, and this was a hurdle we had to overcome with our own congregants during our process. At the time, the best analogy I could come up with was, "White artists were welcome to perform at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, but only Hall & Oates actually did it." Since then, the tone-deaf responses to Black Lives Matter give a better comparison; sexual minorities require an extra effort because of how they have suffered at the hands of those who claimed what they did was in the name of the Almighty.
One of the biggest challenges once a church reaches this point is to maintain the momentum and keep up the education and the awareness. We host movies for fun and panels for insight, march in Edmonton's Pride Parade, and observe the anniversary of our becoming an Affirming Ministry; our Affirmiversary, if you will. (Yes, I'm the one who thought the name was a good idea; so what?)
This year, a young fellow from Canmore came into the picture, talking about a documentary he had shot for Camp fYrefly, a leadership retreat for LGBTQ+ youth and allies. He was not only willing to bring his film, Over the Rainbow, to us for a Saturday night screening, but he would bring at least one cast member and some Camp organizers, and the main 'character' from the film, Marissa would even be willing to sing in our service the next day!
Well, we would have been fools to say no, and last Saturday night we screened the movie for 70-80 people in the sanctuary. I hosted a Q&A session that went really well, and everyone agreed it was a tremendous evening, even if hearing about some of the abuse these kids go through fro being different is pretty hard to listen to.
The next morning, the entire church service was organized by the Affirm Committee, from picking the hymns (which I was happy to let others do!) to delivering the sermon (which the others were happy to let me do...).
This was my 4th time delivering a sermon, but I still get just as nervous as I did the first time, maybe even more so this Sunday. It's an important topic to a lot of folks, and important to me. Weaving together the somewhat disparate scriptures I was given, the topics discussed, the recognition of how far we have to go in terms of justice for sexual minorities, and the celebratory nature of our Affirmiversary.
But it all came together swimmingly; I think the video will attest to that.
It's 45 minutes long, and some people prefer to read, so let me break it down for you. Our choir sang a wonderful anthem, and then the scriptures were read (click here to go to that part of the video):
Genesis 18:1-15 (NRSV)
18 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment."
After the readings, Marissa came out and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"; a classic song, delivered with power and verve by a gifted performer to whom you knew it meant much more than just a nostalgic Wizard of Oz reference. There was a lot of eyesweat going around the church, and not just because of a bittersweet melody. You can see it here.
Then Marissa's mother, Carmen came to the lectern and spoke.
She talked about the challenges of raising a trans child, the shock of discovering that your four-year old is tormented in a way most adults cannot even imagine. The eventual realization, the commitment to make things right, struggle to make that happen, the toll it took on Marissa's school life and Carmen's first marriage.
It's in the video right here, and she is a great speaker with an awesome story to tell. She was kind enough to share her words with me so we could put them on our church's sermon blog, and it is the kind of message that just about everyone would be better off knowing, whether they hear it or read it.
Twenty-six years ago, while I was working in Tucson Arizona as a home care nurse, I visited an African American family. When I walked into that home, there were four generations of women, and all of them were screaming. Feeling pretty overwhelmed, I scooped up the baby that was lying on couch, and began rocking her while I explained to my patient that it was not good to get upset, it would just raise her blood pressure. As the baby settled, so did the women, and so did I.
I finally had an opportunity to look down at the baby I was holding and at that moment she
looked up at me - and smiled. She was beautiful. She had been eating something chocolaty and her little fists were covered in chocolate. She grabbed at my white blouse, leaving her chocolatey handprints on my heart. I smiled down at her and then it hit me. I didn’t have to give birth to love a baby. What if there was another little baby out there who really needed me? I knew I had to follow up.
You know that little voice in your heart. The one that tells you what’s right and wrong? I’ve
always found that when I listen to that voice, things seem to fall into place. Some people refer to it as divine intervention, walking your truth or fate. I call it destiny.
Four months later, my husband and I were the proud parents of a seven-day old baby boy that we named Chad. As we already had two children, Christopher and Chelsey, we found ourselves very busy. It was time to move back to Calgary as I needed my family.
It wasn’t long after we moved that I knew there was something different about my new baby. He was slower to talk and walk then my older children were, but as soon as Chad was walking and talking he gravitated to pink. He loved playing Barbie and dolls with his older sister. In fact, he loved all of Chelsey’s toys and wanted nothing to do with the “boy” toys that he owned. One of his favorite games was dress up. He would put on my Mom’s old dresses and wigs and twirl and dance on his tippy toes, batting his eyelashes at me. I thought he was adorable but Chad’s father wasn’t as impressed. He became extremely angry at me for “encouraging” him and angry at Chad for his behavior.
Chad was four years old when he tried to kill himself. My sister and I were chaperoning our
children around the zoo and we lost track of Chad. Finally, we spotted him, perched precariously at the top of a pile of rocks. I rushed over and grabbed him saying “What were you thinking – you could kill yourself”. He looked up at me with his big brown eyes and said.
“That’s what I was trying to do mom. I have to die so that I can talk to God. I need to tell him
that he made a terrible mistake - he put me in the wrong body. I am really a girl”.
At that moment I knew that this was why I had adopted Chad. I knew that I could support my
child, no matter what that meant. I knew that this was my destiny.
Chad started school and life became more complicated for him. In kindergarten the teacher
asked all the girls to stand on one side and the boys to stand on the other. Chad stood in the
middle. From then on, every day was a battle. The staff were very supportive but, outside of the classroom, he was bullied. He attended school as a boy but as soon as he came home he would dress in girl’s clothes and be the girl he was meant to be. It was at that point that my husband made the decision to leave us. He was unable to provide us with the support we needed.
However, we were very lucky as my family was tremendously supportive. I’ll never forget the
doctor asking Chad what his Grandad says when he dresses up in girls’ clothing. Chad looked at him rather puzzled and said, “My granddad does up my buttons in the back.”
Within our family Chad was loved and supported. It was my goal to bring up this child so he would always feel loved for who he was, but I failed. What I learned was that my love wasn’t enough. The love and acceptance of my whole family wasn’t enough.
As I was a nurse and very familiar with the medical system I could ensure Chad was receiving the best medical care. He was referred to the gender identity clinic in Edmonton to confirm his potential diagnosis as transgender. Following that confirmation, his psychiatrist introduced us to the Harry Benjamin Standards of care and that is exactly what we followed.
Eventually we knew something had to change, Chad couldn’t continue leading this double life, going to school as a boy and then coming home to being a girl. With the help of his doctor, we finally got the school board to let him start grade 7 as a girl. At that time, we were told that we were setting precedent. We were also told that this must remain a secret – for Chad’s safety. As well, if other parents found out and complained this experiment would not be continued.
We were very busy during the summer between Grade 6 and 7 preparing for the transition.
Together, Chad and I chose a new name, Marissa, and then I made the legal name change. Our passports were also due for renewal so I took Chelsey and Marissa to the passport office to make the changes. When I presented all of Marissa’s documentation to the person at the window she informed me that I couldn’t change his name to Marissa – he was a boy. She argued with me for over an hour. At one point she told me, “Name him Pat – Pat can be either a boy or a girl’s name.” I explained that actually I had made the change to Marissa and we were going to proceed with her new name. She got her supervisor, who proved to be just as uncooperative. I was so frustrated I remember saying “Haven’t you ever heard of a boy named Sue – I can name her whatever I want.” Finally, she processed her paperwork but made a point of telling me “you can’t change his sex on the passport – that will always be male.”
That summer Marissa was referred to an endocrinologist who put her on Lupron. This is why it is so important to get to these kids early. Lupron does not make any permanent changes. What it does do is delay puberty, giving children the opportunity to figure out who they are before it’s too late. In Marissa’s case it prevented her from experiencing the development of male secondary sexual characteristics including the bone structure changes and the growth of facial hair. As she never wavered in her conviction that she was a girl, she was eventually put on female hormones and allowed to go through puberty as a girl.
When I was studying for my Master’s Degree, the statistics at that time stated approximately 1 in 100,000 people were transgender. Our family felt very isolated. We were warned by the professionals that this needed to be kept secret at the risk of Marissa’s wellbeing, and possibly her life. You see, most people didn’t understand. I was often accused of trying to make my son into the daughter that apparently I always wanted. After all, what does a child know about gender identity.
Marissa continued through junior high and high school living with this huge secret – always
afraid that someone would find out and she would no longer be allowed to be who she was. She was also diagnosed with numerous learning disabilities as well as anxiety and depression - more reasons to be the object of ridicule in her classroom. We could hardly wait until she graduated and could escape the continuous bullying. Music became her refuge. She had a beautiful voice and loved to perform and so that is what we focused on.
After graduating and turning 18, Marissa became eligible for gender reassignment surgery. We applied to the program in Montreal and were given a surgical date. We could hardly wait until she had surgery. I believed that would be the solution to all of her problems.
After we returned from Montreal I really thought she would finally be happy. But she needed
something we couldn’t give her; she needed to feel accepted for who she was by her teachers, her school, her community, her city, her province, her country. And I couldn’t make that happen.
She spiraled into a deep depression and I was terrified I was going to lose her. I had finally lost hope when her psychologist suggested she attend Camp fYrefly. I did some research and the more I learned, the more excited I became. That little voice inside of my heart was telling me that this was something special, maybe even the answer to my prayers.
The person I had dropped off at camp was not the same person that I picked up. She was
transformed by the love and acceptance she experienced at camp. She vowed she would help others and volunteered to become a part of the Camp fYreflys in schools, talking to teachers and students about her experience and the importance of community support and acceptance. As she was reaching out to others, she was healing herself.
It was through Camp fyrefly that we were given the opportunity to meet some amazing people, people like Mikael. We became involved in the making of “Over the Rainbow” which is facilitating the discussions we so desperately need in our society. We are able to address the impact of homophobic and transphobic bullying and share the tools we all need to challenge prejudice and discrimination and to become effective allies. After all, we all know our children are our future. If we educate the youth, we can change the world.
Now many of you may be looking at me and thinking that this really doesn’t affect you, that we don’t actually have much in common. But we do. What we all have in common at this very moment is that we are all here today. I’m here because this is a part of my destiny.
Why are you here? Is this your path? Maybe, like me, you are supporting someone you love on this journey. Maybe you are here today because you think this is a great cause or you want to learn more about it. Whatever your reasons, you are here, even if you believe it is just a coincidence. But maybe you here because this is a part of your destiny?
Powerful stuff, that, which elicited a rare standing ovation from those who heard it. The gasps when Carmen talked about a toddler wanting to kill himself were audible throughout the church, and the empathy was almost tangible as Carmen described their journey.
And then it was my turn.
"Tough act to follow," I confessed at the mic. And then got into it (viewable here):
I would like to begin by thanking Marissa for her wonderful gift of music, and her mother Carmen, for sharing their story with us today.
For those of you that weren’t able to join us last night for the screening of Over the Rainbow, you missed a doozy.
We heard stories about teens and kids who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, queer or questioning or otherwise marginalized because of their sexuality or gender expression.
Their stories, and too many others like them, are stories about exclusion. About persecution. About bullying. And threats. And assault. And even worse.
They are tragic and terrifying stories, and they resonate with us, because we have empathy, and because of a righteous human instinct that seeks to protect children from harm, even the children of strangers.
What prompts these attacks? What is the source of this antipathy?
A lot of times it is ignorance, a lack of understanding. Sometimes it is a deep-seated self-loathing, directed outward. Most of the time though, when you boil it down far enough, and distill it to its essence, it is fear. Fear of difference, fear of change, fear of the “other”.
It is the same kind of fear that saw black churches set ablaze in the American south, the same kind that saw us put Japanese-Canadians into internment camps, the same kind that now prompts some western nations to close their borders to refugees, or consider electing reprehensible humans into high offices. (Ahem)
LGBTQ+ youth and adults are an unfortunately common focus of this fear.
Fear is a natural response to the unknown, but it needs to be overcome in order to move forward. How does God help us move from fear to hope?
In the reading from Genesis, we heard the story, familiar to many of us, that mixes fear and hope. Of how God comes to aged Abraham and Sarah, appearing as three strangers. Abraham, instead of recoiling from them, welcomes them,recognizing God in them, and offers them hospitality instead of hostility. He has bread and meat brought to them.
Before leaving, the strangers promise the two of them a son. There is some saucy talk in there about geriatric canoodling, mostly to draw attention to Sarah’s disbelief that she could have a child at her age, and then her denial of laughing at the idea. The laughter and the denial come from the same fearful place, but SPOILER ALERT: she does indeed have a son, because “is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
I understand the scepticism and the fear; I’m already apprehensive about changing diapers and dealing with midnight feedings and the like, and I’m only HALF the age that Abraham is when that stork flies in!
But Abraham and Sarah have their son Isaac, and thus begins a huge branch for the tree of Israel, a line that goes on from Isaac to Jacob and eventually to David then on down to Jesus. And it all starts with a visit from strangers.
Now, there's a lot to unpack in our Gospel reading, but let me paraphrase what I heard:
Jesus is helping people. People who need it.
The people to Jesus ratio is tilted heavily towards the people; despite his divinity, he only has two hands, and some helpers would be nice.
He calls his disciples together and deputizes them, giving them the authority and the ability to make things better.
He sends them out, locally, asking them not to cross any borders. (That comes later, after Pentecost.)
Jesus tells them to go out and spread the good news, and to heal people while they do it.
Lastly he reminds them they haven't paid anything for these abilities, and are working pro bono, and not to expect payment. (Kind of like interns, if you think about it…)
I'm not going to speak for everyone here, but I get a little uneasy talking about casting out demons and the like. And maybe a little jealous.
I mean, if bigotry was some kind of imp or goblin or flying monkey you could spot at a distance, or if intolerance was some kind of bugbear or wicked witch you could beat up in the street, that would make things a lot easier, wouldn't it? Wouldn't life be simpler if prejudice could be banished or even held at bay by a cross or garlic like Dracula?
But no, we have to do it the hard way.
What does that look like? Well, a big part of it is creating safe spaces for people. This is the second anniversary of St. Albert United being an Affirming Ministry. It's a lot more than being allowed to put up a rainbow sticker, it's a commitment to making sure we are living up to our mission statement and creating a space where EVERYONE has room to grow. It’s not just about laying out the welcome mat and hoping people read it, or being hospitable the way Abraham made those three strangers welcome, recognizing God was with them. It's about making sure everyone feels equally welcome, no matter who they are or what they look like or who they love.
It's about education, a lot of times, beginning with ourselves and then reaching outwards. It's about demonstrating that there is nothing to be afraid of, that embracing diversity makes us all stronger and better.
When you create an affirming space that allows a gay teenager to come into our sanctuary and hear that critically important message that they are loved exactly how they are? That is how you help drive away fear.
When you hug a trans man and thank him for coming to your panel? That is how you help cast out oppression.
When you march in Pride under the banner of a church and proclaim God’s love is for everybody, that is how you cure our society from the delusion that our LGBTQ+ friends need to be cured or fixed or normalized in any way.
You are helping the the healing when you invite the community at large in to watch a movie like Somewhere Over The Rainbow, to share how important safe spaces are. Spaces like Camp fYrefly.
Camp fYrefly is a leadership retreat for LGBTQ and allied youth. fYrefly, with a capital ‘y’, is an acronym that stands for fostering, Youth, resilience, energy, fun, leadership, yeah! For a lot of campers, it is the first place they have been to in their lives where they feel safe, where they are accepted for who they truly are.
It's heartbreaking, some of the stories these young people bring to camp, and to the movie, but it shows just how much work remains to be done. Like the story from Matthew tells us, “the harvest is great, and the labourers few”.
How does Camp fYrefly help? In their own words, they build leadership “through activities that challenge youth to explore their identity, build resilience, and enhance self- and social-esteem. Camp fYrefly would like each youth participant to be able to return home with a "resilient mindset" and a support network of positive friendships, trusted adult mentors, and an empowered sense of self.”
Youth leave Camp fYrefly empowered and impassioned, secure in themselves and supported by others, ready to make a difference. To make the world a better place. And like Jesus in our Gospel reading, help is wanted! In fact,a young lady at the panel last night asked that very question:
How do we help?
There are lots of ways, and here are just a few:
By trying to be as brave as these kids are!
By continuing to provide not only a safe, but a welcoming space.
By being visible allies. (Fly that flag! March with that rainbow umbrella!)
By supporting allies like Camp fYrefly.
By continuing to educate ourselves and others.
By speaking out when we see our brothers and sisters being treated unjustly.
By recognizing our authority to drive out bigotry, cleanse intolerance, and banish ignorance. Not through battle, but by shining a light on them, leaving them no dark places to flourish in.
Friends, I know that at times, a mission like ‘making the world a better place’ seems like an impossible task, that victory is too much to hope for. But we are making progress, we have a lot of people rooting for us, and God is with us. A wonderful future for everyone lies not around the corner, but just over the rainbow. And like we heard in Genesis, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
I don’t think so!
My delivery was only so-so; my voice caught in a couple places, and I spent too much time looking at my notes, fearful I would lose my place, but it was very well received. After the service I collected some handshakes and a couple of hugs, as well as some suggestions that I should apply for the ministerial vacancy our church has.
(It's all very flattering, but I told them I really don't want to lose my amateur status. After all, one of the keys to my personal success has always been setting expectations nice and low!)
But far better than the response I got was the reception that everyone gave to Carmen and Marissa. Hugs, and handshakes, earnest thanks, head-shaking, tearstained expressions of immense gratitude.
I told Marissa how impressive a young woman she is: the confidence, the power, the poise, the amazing voice; she is the complete package, and I hope she goes far. Catching up with Carmen, I told her how compelling her talk was, and how receptive our congregation was to her message. She praised my sermon as well, but paid the highest possible compliment to our crazy but loving little group:
"I wish we went to church here."