"Pastor, I need to know if I'm welcome in this church!" It was with these words, blurted out as she ambled across the threshold of my office doorway, that I was first introduced to Sami (not her real name), a person who was in the process of transitioning from male to female. The words barely out of her mouth, Sami plopped down on the edge of the couch adjacent to my desk and launched into her story.
The western New York church I was serving at the time is an American Baptist church that I would describe as conservative to moderate, and one that had never encountered a trans person seeking welcome, affirmation and, eventually, membership.
As Sami told me her story, she revealed herself to be a 62 year old who had lived her life knowing that she was a woman in the body of a man. Experts state that as many as 1 in 1,500 children are born with ambiguous genitalia. This was Sami's story. At birth her doctor decided to "correct" her by assigning her male genitalia. As Sami matured physically and sexually, she knew that this had been a mistake. Inside, she knew she was a woman.
"I'm in the process of becoming the woman I know I am," she said, "and first of all I want to know if you're OK with that because I've been to a lot of churches where the pastor told me that I'm not welcome or wanted."
"Not only am I OK with who you are and who you are becoming, but I fully affirm you as a child of God -- fully loved and fully valued."
"Well thank you." Sami said. Looking down at the floor as she bounced her large frame a bit further toward the back of the couch. "Now what about the church? Are these people going to want me?"
"Well that's a good question," I said. "It will be a process both theologically and educationally. But if you're willing to be patient and trust God and me, I think we can help these folks to grow a bit."
"Since you mentioned God," Sami began cautiously, "what does God think of me? As I mentioned before, churches don't tend to welcome me and one pastor told me that God will never forgive me because I'm changing what God never intended to be changed. 'God made you a man, and you must stay a man' he told me."
Now I was on the spot. It was one thing to affirm Sami myself, or even to hope for the best when it came to the congregation's reaction to her, but what did my heart tell me about God's answer, and what did the Bible say about transgendered people? Hurriedly, I said a prayer, "God help me out here. I need some wisdom because so much is riding on this conversation."
As I sat back in my chair, clasping my hands behind my head, my eyes scanned my vast bookshelf. Anything?...Anything!...Then my recently purchased commentary on the books of First and Second Samuel by Walter Brueggemann caught my eye.
I grabbed my Bible and quickly flipped to 1 Samuel 16 which begins with the story of God instructing the prophet to go to Jesse's house to find the man who would replace Saul as king. Quickly I scanned the familiar story to find verses 6 and 7.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed is now before the Lord." But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." (New Revised Standard Version)
I read these words aloud to Sami and waited a moment for them to wash over both of us. Presently, I said, "I understand that it is crucial that you become who you are and who you know you were meant to be. I believe this is vitally important to God as well because God intimately knows you and loves you. If there is any truth to this scripture, it is ultimately your heart that matters most to God. That's what I would say to the pastor who was so hurtful to you. Concerning your gender identity, it is my belief that God affirms your decision. The truth of who you are and must become is a truth that God has called you to live into. This you know in your heart. I affirm this truth as a Baptist, a pastor, a Christian and a fellow human being. So to answer your initial question, yes you are welcome in this church!"
After attending for several months, Sami joined the church and went on to serve on the Board of Worship, and sing in the choir.