I could actually write for a number of weeks regarding Christianity and trans* and nonbinary people. I could write about how scripture is rich with examples of gender non-conforming people and intersex and asexual people. I could write about the wisdom of our Jewish siblings found in the Talmud, which recognizes eight (you read that right) genders. And perhaps this will form the backbone of a future study here at St. Paul. But for now, I want to move us beyond the texts and the apologetics, and focus on something that is so often forgotten: The Gifts that Trans* and Nonbinary people bring the Church.
Relying (again) on the work of Austen Hartke for these insights, I offer you just some of the MANY gifts that trans* and nonbinary people bring the church. The first is the gift of a lived understanding related to suffering, death, and resurrection. Trans* and nonbinary people understand, uniquely, what it is to suffer and die to something, and then be raised to new life. They know the pain of living under oppressive regimes–including, but not limited to–the gender binary, societal gender norms, and the Church’s arch nemesis, “The way things have always been done.” They have suffered to live into the fullness of who they are. They have died to a name and pronouns that aren’t consistent with their gender, to the ways they once moved through the world, and even died to a body that didn’t match the fullness of who they are. And they know resurrection. They understand new life beyond the suffering and the death. They understand the new hope and the expectation that are born from a new identity that is more true to who they really are. For those who have surgery as part of their journey, their body, like the resurrected Jesus, bears scars. Jesus encouraged his disciples to look at and touch his scars in order to better understand resurrection and so, maybe, the scars of trans* and nonbinary people might also gift us a more full and embodied understanding of resurrection as well. To be sure, trans* and nonbinary people have stories to share about their personal experience with suffering, death, and resurrection that the Church needs to hear.
Trans* and nonbinary people can also offer the Church an antidote to false binaries that allow the rest of us to embrace the complexities of our faith. Too often in the Church, we fall into what I call “sucker’s choices,” or believing that we must choose to be this way or that way. Trans* and nonbinary people can lead us in navigating life in the in between spaces–in the both/and spaces that Jesus so often pointed toward. In fact, in scripture we often find Jesus calling out religious leaders–from his own faith–for neglecting the spirit of the Law and choosing instead to the either/or letter of the Law.
As I said, the list could go on and on, but suffice it to say, trans* and nonbinary people are not only the beloved of God, but are absolute gifts that the Church should embrace when offered. The Church loses something of God and of the richness of our faith stories when we push trans* and nonbinary people not only out of the Church, but also when we try to push them out of the human story completely. Our faith and our lives are better and more full when we accept the gifts that trans* and nonbinary people have to offer and allow them to lead us somewhere deeper, somewhere wider, somewhere beyond where we could ever go without them.
I, for one, am more than ready to receive and to be led.
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.