Thursday, December 18, 2014

Transformed by the Spirit, Called to Serve

In 2013, I retired after 24 years as an Air Traffic Controller for the Federal Aviation Administration and joined the Community of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal women’s religious order, as a Postulant.

A few weeks ago on the Feast of St. Andrew, I was clothed as a Novice and took my religious name of Sister Catherine Maria. After some research, I learned that I may be the first transwoman to be a Sister in a mainline religious denomination in the world. I live in community with the Sisters, and they have welcomed me with open arms. Bishop Michael Curry, who presided over Integrity's 40th Anniversary Inaugural Eucharist, is my Community’s Bishop Visitor.

I took my first-ever retreat at the Community in February of 2013, stayed for five days and it was magical. Things just happened every day - a new thing every day - and I felt such a draw to this Community, I just knew immediately that I wanted to be a woman religious and that I wanted to be a part of this Community. I truly believe that this is part of God’s plan for me to be here, in the Community, to care for the elder sisters and to bring life and service back to the Community.  

I draw my strength from interacting with those less fortunate than I. Because of my history - I've suffered many personal losses of family and loved ones in my life - I can truly empathize and relate to a homeless man or woman, an addict or a prostitute; they are my closest friends now.  Because in many ways I myself was "kicked to the curb", I understand how they feel, and if I can bring them any solace though mercy, even by just listening, well I've done something.  

I also now gain positive energies from advocating for gay and transgender people and issues relevant to them. Early in my discernment, I struggled with where I fit in this regard, but I learned that in order to be Christ-like, I had to embrace who I was and carry my cross every day. Jesus did not deny who he was, and I cannot any longer; I've come out openly as a transgender woman pretty much this year. I don’t have to be open, I can pretty much be “stealthy”, but I made a conscious decision to be out and to bring the message that we are all God’s children and that She loves us regardless, and we are in fact made in Her image!  God loves us all, even if our families do not.

Part of my calling is to be open about my story. I never was, but through my vocation I've increasingly become an activist.  This past year I've worked with Why Marriage Matters Ohio, Marriage Equality Ohio, and the local HRC, I am on the Cincinnati PRIDE Committee, worked with numerous interfaith groups, and also with the LGBTQ Youth Homeless Initiative, one of only three in the country funded by HUD. My message that I bring to every group is simply this: we are all Children of God and He loves us all no matter what.  We are all valued regardless of our position in life, whether gay or transgender, homeless, addicted or a woman of the street - we ALL have value, we all are important, we all are loved.

I would say that of all the people I've met on my journey, Mother Paula Jackson, an Episcopal priest and Rector of the Church of Our Savior in Cincinnati has inspired me most. She works tirelessly for the needy and homeless, the gay and transgender communities, and especially for the immigrant community in Cincinnati.  If only I had half her energy!

My deep calling is to reach out to others and bring the very real message that we are all God’s children, that Jesus loves us for precisely who we are - He created us after all.  And that--regardless of what family, friends or society has tried to tell them--we all matter, we are all valued and we are all loved.  And I fully recognize this as being a transwoman myself, having dealt with the thought that God made me as a mistake… God doesn't make mistakes, and people need to hear that message. So I think that there’s some value in an avowed religious speaking out, standing up and being counted; I could remain “stealth” quite easily, but God has told me to be open for others.

Sister Catherine Maria is a novice with the Community of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal women’s religious order in Cincinnati.  Prior to answering God’s call, Sister Catherine Maria was a Severe Weather Specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, one of only 14 such Specialists in the entire country, and also the Facility Representative for the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association, a nationally recognized position. Sister Catherine Maria retired from federal service in September 2013, and in October 2013 became the first Transgender woman to enter a Convent of a mainline order in the world.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Rose By Any Other Name

Vicky Mitchell
This past weekend I was a parish delegate to the Diocese of Los Angeles annual convention where one of the matters taken up was a Resolution on the subject of Same Sex Marriage. The resolution which was passed by an overwhelming majority of the convention voters, instructs our Diocesan delegates to the Episcopal Church’s national General Convention next summer to take a "hard line" and putting into immediate action the National Church’s long-talked about and debated programs to enable full inclusion of same sex partners in the Sacramental Rites of the National Church and all of its provinces and dioceses. For LGBT folks this is a huge issue of validation, and one I supported with my vote, and which I truly believe is the Will of God as I have prayerfully discerned it to be.

While happy for my LGB friends, I did not meet any other Trans* people there at the Convention, and I am pretty sure that I was the only Trans* delegate / attendee there. I was openly and happily wearing a Trans* Pride button, which was acknowledged by some folks I knew in the LGBT ministry program whom I had met the year before, and whom I had been with in the West Hollywood "TGLB" Pride Parade and Festival last June. I saw no other person there with any symbol of Trans* alliance.

The night before the vote on the resolution took place, I had gone to a reception for the LGBT ministry people off the convention site, and felt right at home with a wonderful group of people, of which, perhaps half were wearing clerical collars. With the exception of one single person there, me, it was about 25% each, Lesbian clergy couples, Lesbian lay couples, Gay clergy couples, and lay Gay couples, there were a few there whose partners were not at the party, but partnered they were. Strong loving relations were obviously a quality that was valued as part of their Christian lives in private and public.

Marriage is and will continue to be a strong symbol of validation for the LGB members of the Church, and will equip them in ministries that will benefit the whole of Christianity be the couple clergy or laity.
Marriage has been the key point in full acceptance of the GLB members and its time is coming close if other Diocese’s follow the lead of Los Angeles. Transgender people though have another item that will stand for full inclusion in its own way, and that is the recognition of our names.

It is hard for non-Trans* people to understand the full significance of a name as Transgender people feel it. As a Trans* activist, I am part of several groups dealing with Transgender issues, and can point to one single event in a Transgender person’s life that is more significant than surgeries or even Hormone Therapy, and that is changing our “trial names” which are of the gender we do not feel part of to our more True names. On the internet forums I am part of as a contributor, anyone who posts a notice that they have legally changed their names are met with an outpouring of posts of congratulation and well wishing. On a website where I am a moderator and senior member, the most persistent question in one form or another is how to pick a name, and then approach local authorities to make that the person’s new legal name. Changes to Birth Certificates that also reflect the preferred gender and name are also a major issue for a Gender Dysphoria subject.
The why of this phenomena is pretty easy for a Trans* person to understand, but is a problem for the non-Trans* folk. Gender Dysphoria was previously known as Gender Identity Dysphoria and even before that as Gender Identity Disorder. The outdated term does give the clue to the name issue. A name is an integral part of a person’s identity and thus a name that reflects the person’s inner identity is the beginning of a transformed life with an identity that feels TRUE to the person.

My legal name change took place in July 2012 and while the court appearance was anticlimactic, it was nice to let my priest know that it had happened, and since I held a parish office that needed to be on a diocesan record officially, I know it was changed that way. It was not a big deal supposedly, especially since the General Convention had voted full acceptance of Gender Variant people in all offices of the church a few weeks before, I am OK with that, but there is something missing from the matter of fact flow of paperwork. This name change thing is huge for Trans* people, and there needs to be a way to celebrate it as fully as our initial Baptism is celebrated, and as our Confirmation is celebrated.

I am looking at two documents from 41 years ago, one is my Baptismal Certificate attested by my now deceased rector in another parish than the one I am now at, and a certificate of Confirmation, signed by a bishop now also dead. Both took place when I was 25 years old, a few months apart, and both have what I call my “Trial Name” on them. I have given away that name to become the person who now lives and serves in the church I attend, and in the wider Church as well.

There seems to be a solution to that wish to celebrate my name change and I am now working with my priest on requesting a renewal of my Confirmation and Baptismal Covenants and vows when my Bishop comes for a parish visit in January 2015. I am going to be asking for a tiny change in reciting that I was first Baptized and Confirmed as but renew and continue in my current lay ministry and membership in my True name and identity before the Bishop who represents the Whole Church and not just my tiny part of a parish. This will truly be a sign of acceptance of me as a Trans*woman.

My desire to be part of the Church is not limited to my being a Trans* person, and my future involvement will be the normal cares and joys of our experience in following the steps of Jesus, and seeking to be “Instruments Of His Peace”. I know I was not allowed to end my own life 7 years ago, and have felt the presence and caring of God and Christ at all parts of my acceptance and transition. A friend has suggested that we Trans*people have been placed in our congregations as a challenge for others to explore the diversity of God’s Creation, and to give others a taste of what it means to “do it to the least (in numbers) of My children”.

Vicky Mitchell, a member of the Church of the Transfiguration, in Arcadia, California
Reprinted with permission from Facebook

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Episcopal Church and My Transition

Raised as Roman Catholic, I converted to the Episcopal Church as an adult because the Episcopal Church is based upon three foundations:  Scripture, Tradition, and Reason... and let me not under-emphasize the importance of the last item listed... Reason. God gave us a brain, and we are meant to use it.

Not all Episcopal Parishes, nor all Episcopal Dioceses, however, are equal – but I am so completely and totally blessed to be a member of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, and of the parish of Eastern Shore Chapel (a “chapel of ease” established on the Eastern Shore of the Lynnhaven River, in Virginia Beach, VA).

For as long as I can remember, I knew that I was “different.”  It took years, however, to learn exactly what my difference was, to accept that difference, to embrace that difference, and then to live as that different person. My faith has always been of great importance to me, even during those dark nights of the soul when I was quite angry with God for making me as I am. It was only after years of study, searching, and counseling, that I came to not only accept who I am, but to actually realize that by being transgender God enhanced my life far, far above what it would have been as a hetero-normative individual.

As I came to both embrace my being, and move towards transitioning to my current gender, however, it became ever so readily apparent that not all denominations, or even congregations within a denomination were able to both talk/preach the word of Christ, but also to live and love as Christ directs and demands.

As I began to conclude that I would need to transition to survive, I had to ensure that my church would accept me. I had just read a couple of books by the liberal theologian, Bishop John Shelby Spong. Shortly thereafter I learned that Eastern Shore Chapel was bringing him to the church as part of their Chapel Speaker Series! I attended his presentations on Friday night and Saturday morning, then the regular service on Sunday morning – and my church home was set.

It was important to me that, moving forward in my life, my church knew who I was, so I immediately made appointments and met with the clergy telling all of them about my situation. Over the course of the next several years, I became more and more involved in my parish life. The parish sponsored an Integrity Chapter, and I served as its first Convenor, then on the Board of Directors. I commenced the four-year Education for Ministry (EFM) course. That first year, giving my spiritual autobiography included one of the most challenging decisions I would ever make as, to this point in time, only my wife, the clergy, and my counselors were aware that I was transgender. I vacillated back-and-forth for days uncertain how to proceed. At the last minute I made the decision to make the disclosure – fearful of the consequences – and ecstatic with the compassion of my classmates.

By the second year of EFM I was attending as the person that I truly am, as Donna. By the third year I knew that I would be making the public transition and slowly began expanding the circle of parishioners who knew both of my situation and of my impending transition.

On August 7, 2014 I underwent Facial Feminization Surgery, with Sunday, August 24th to be my first time attending church as Donna. As I dressed that morning for church – the first time that I would publicly attend a church service as a woman – I was a little apprehensive. Not exactly nervous, and definitely not scared, yet – still – this was a big step. I arrived at church about 10 minutes before the service, as is my habit. I think we all know how people tend to always sit in the same general area of the church each Sunday. Almost like we all have assigned seats/pews. Well, that morning, within mere minutes I WAS SURROUNDED by people, packed in near me almost like sardines in a can. It was mostly women, but a few men as well. It was a visible sign of support to me; and it was a visible sign – to the rest of the congregation – of the parish’s support for me. Several ladies told me that they had not intended on attending church that Sunday, but they knew that it was to be my first service as Donna, and they wanted to be there for me! Another lady welcomed me to “the women’s team!” Over the past three months my full and complete acceptance as a woman member of our parish has been total and complete.

Not every aspect of my transition has gone so smoothly. While I am truly blessed at how well it has gone, the family impact has been significant. But – I simply do not know where I would be today without my faith and my parish.

I have attended more churches than the average person. I left the Catholic Church as a teenager and, during college, “deliberately wandered” checking out every mainline Christian denomination I could:  Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, you name it, I tried it. The beauty of diversity is that there is a church for anyone who searches. None is better nor worse than any other, but we all/each have our own comfort levels. During my wandering I was continually drawn to St. Paul’s Episcopal in my college town. When I commenced active duty in the Navy the basic options were Roman Catholic or “generic” Protestant. Well into my 25 years of active duty Naval service I converted to the Episcopal Church – which I by then recognized as being on the leading edge of mainline Christianity with regards to the full acceptance (no * - meaning no exception) ordination, and consecration – as Priests and Bishops – of women, gay, lesbian, and most recently, transgender individuals.

For me, for many years now, my time at church – and not just for Sunday services – are among the most fulfilling and happiest days of my life.

How nice to have a church that not just preaches, but actually practices, Christianity!

Donna Price

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sean Glenn: My Meditation for World AIDS Day

Although I have often commented on the subtle nuances of World AIDS Day's placement in close proximity to the first Sunday in Advent, this year I was confronted––perhaps more than ever––by the jarring and peculiar ways that both of these days resonate with and read each other.

PHOTO CREDIT: Christian Paolino
All rights reserved. Used with permission.
A strange and marvelous thing happened to me yesterday morning. While singing the final hymn for the Eucharist at Christ Church, Cambridge, Mass.  ("Lo! he comes with clouds descending"), these peculiarities caught me off-guard. While I always appreciate the ways a sophisticated Advent hymn will prefigure the crucifixion and resurrection, I had seldom read this kind of imagery in the context of my own status as an HIV-positive person. The incarnational reality of my life with HIV––a new life-long embodied Advent of patient waiting and longing for the redemptive release of a cure or, at the very least, the dismantling of unjust and uninformed social stigma––washed over me in waves as verse three began:

"Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears..."

Those dear tokens––those wounds inflicted by a brutal imperial hegemony––remain a core feature of the Body of Christ, in both his resurrected visage, as well as us, his Body in the world.

Yet despite my own on-going sense of daily death and resurrection, I still find myself (as I am sure do so many others) walking the path of (im-)patient expectation. Much in the same way Jesus' own wounds reflect a certain degree of choice, so too I begin to feel the sense that the wounds we experience as HIV-positive people also reflect a degree of choice. This is, by no means, an indictment of the manner by which we become HIV-positive; the wound there is in no way something self-inflicted. Rather, at least in my own meditation on the matter, the "dear tokens" which confront me daily are a matter of my own choice around disclosure. I am wounded no matter my choice: I can hide, attempt to pass through the world untouched by this peculiar bodily companion, or I can do what I have done and give the thing a face in the world. If I hide, I am crushed by the closet of shame and fear. If I disclose, I am rendered and read as many things, none of which I truly believe I am: a victim, one inflicted, something to be pitied, a body to be feared and avoided, the manifestation of one of our epoch's great and terrible specters, dirty.

We are none of these things, though. We walk our path of living Advent, but we do so knowing that "what God has made clean, [no one can] call dirty."

To the sero-negative, ponder this during Advent. Be a light for those you know (or may not know) are sero-positive. Lay down the banner of fear.

To my fellow sero-positive, resist the labels that others might want to apply to us. Wear these wounds with pride, knowing that God has transformed them––just as peculiarly as on Easter––and, as a result has transformed us by them and through them. Show your pierced hands and open sides to the world; give birth to a new reality.


Sean Glenn is Integrity's Diocesan Organizer for Massachusetts. He is a composer and conductor of sacred choral music, and holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Boston University and a Master of Arts in Music from the Aaron Copland School at Queens College. His home on the web is