Friday, August 22, 2014

Success In Fayetteville

Since coming out as a priest who happens to be transgender nearly six months ago I have embarked on a great adventure that has involved a little bit of traveling. In June I had the great privilege to take my first ever road trip. I considered it a pilgrimage. I drove from Little Rock to Washington D.C. for the liturgy at the National Cathedral honoring Pride month and the LGBT community. I went to hear a good friend preach in that magnificent building. I was honored, and humbled, to have had the opportunity to attend a reception at the Dean’s residence following the liturgy.

Getting there was as much a part of my pilgrimage as the few days spent in the nation’s capital connecting with old friends and making new ones. My first night on the road was spent with an Episcopal Youth Community (EYC) friend from back in the day. We had reconnected on Facebook after years of being out of touch and quickly discovered that she had recently embarked on a journey of her own and it was really good to reconnect personally. The visit also gave me a chance to educate her significant other about what it’s like being transgender. Although I gently corrected them on things like using the hurtful “T” word and asking about “The Procedure”, there wasn't any malice in the questions. It was honest curiosity from a caring person who didn't have the knowledge. After all, I was the first transgender person that they had ever (knowingly) met and we continued the conversation late into the evening.

The journey continued with my trip back to Little Rock, when I took the northern route so I could return home for my mother’s birthday. Visiting my mom is always an interesting time for me, especially these days since I haven’t come out to her. I realize it wouldn’t be fair to her at this time in her life. I brought flowers and a card to her memory support unit and as I entered through the doors of the common area, as DRAB as is possible for me these days, she turned and I saw that flicker of recognition in her eyes. Waves of emotions washed over me as my eyes welled up. She looked at me and smiled as we made our way downstairs to the Bistro for a birthday celebration, along the way, she told nearly everyone we passed, “this is my daughter.” There was the Skyline Chili, and the special rib place that the locals know about, there were all the meaningful places filled with a lifetime of memories revisited on my great solo road trip and adventure, but nothing came close to the unexpected grace that took place in the journey from the memory support floor to the Bistro.

On July 25th events beginning with a Friday evening at a National Center for Transgender Equality event, an HRC Summer of Conversations event on Saturday, and culminating in me assisting at the Eucharists at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday morning. It was wonderful connecting for the first time with members and allies of the trans community in Northwest Arkansas. As it turns out the journey took an unexpected turn when I shared a meal and found a deep connection with new friends at lunch on Saturday. Amazing things can happen when people gather around a table for a common meal. Nothing, however, prepared me for what took place on Sunday morning. Many in the trans community and allies from the Fayetteville area, attended those services at St. Paul’s. They were welcomed by the gathering community at the parish. (I notice those sorts of things these days.) I suspect many knew it was a safe place because of their experience with the parish. I suspect others came in solidarity. To support me in I was back on the road, this time to Fayetteville, Arkansas. It would be a full weekend of their midst and each other in the community.

And then it happened again. More unexpected grace was experienced in the journeys from the altar to the rail and from the pews to the altar. It was a first communion for many. It was a welcoming seat at the table with room for all. It was a sacred moment. Head down. Hands outstretched to receive. Shoulders quivering with emotions as my trans friends experienced acceptance, love, and wholeness. As did this priest. The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

The people of Fayetteville took a pretty amazing journey of their own this week. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning (“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed...”) and after 10 hours of public comment and debate, the City Council passed an anti-discrimination ordinance by a vote of 6-2. Those friends I had made just a few weeks ago queued up and spoke out about the discrimination and violence they have endured at the hands of those who don’t believe they have a right to exist. It was not an easy journey for them. Many of the opponents in the council chamber spoke about bathrooms and pedophiles, mental illness and sin. And in the end, my brothers and sisters in the trans community and our allies, made their own pilgrimage of sorts from the back of the room to the podium to tell their stories and witness to the reality of living their lives authentically. It was a huge decision and accomplishment for many of them to overcome the fear of loss and prejudice and discrimination with their detractors in their midst. Speaking the truth in love always has costs, and we never know where it may lead before we embark on that journey. But I believe we all experience grace along the way.

My friends in the LGBT community weren't the only ones who benefited early Wednesday morning, with the passage of this anti-discrimination ordinance. The city of Fayetteville was given a gift of grace as well in the amazing example of leadership by their elected council members and area clergy. Let us never forget the risk individual members of the council took in making the decision to verbally support and vote for this expansion of equality for all the city’s residents. What it came down to is the integrity of community members like Alderman Matthew Perry who proposed this ordinance. In his final comments before the vote he said, “...I think the stories we’ve heard tonight – which have been absolutely courageous in their telling – are evidence that there are issues [of discrimination].” Alderman Mark Kinion added, “We must step forward bravely and with immediacy. We must admit that there is the possibility of an unsafe environment for individuals here. It is our responsibility as elected officials to look out for those minorities who cannot fight for themselves.”

After 10 hours of comment and debate, after all these pilgrimages and journeys, travels - and trips to the altar rail, finding empty seats at the table after so many risked everything those wee hours of Wednesday morning, Mayor Lioneld Jordan had a word of unexpected grace before the final vote was taken.

“If you don’t depart, you don’t arrive.”

The Rev. Gwen Fry is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas; she is the former Priest in Charge at Grace Episcopal Church, Pine Bluff and is now working as a Supply Priest throughout the diocese. She also serves as the Diocesan Coordinator for Episcopal Relief & Development.

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