06/26/2018 05:45 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2018

As A Queer Indian-American Christian, This Priest Had To Create Her Own Path

"To defy authority in Asian-American cultures can feel like denying God," said Rev. Winnie Varghese. "But it's in the Bible that we are created in the image of God."
Rev. Winnie Varghese is a queer Episcopal priest living in New York City.
Trinity Wall Street
Rev. Winnie Varghese is a queer Episcopal priest living in New York City.

One of Rev. Winnie Varghese’s proudest moments as a queer priest was being asked to speak to an ecumenical gathering of Christian leaders in India about homophobia in the church. 

Starting around 2009, the country started re-examining Section 377, a colonial-era ban on gay sex that is still being debated in Indian courts. During the conference, Varghese stood up and testified to the assembly of mostly male Indian priests about how Christian bigotry has hurt LGBTQ people. 

Varghese said that it was a powerful experience for her ― and one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do. 

“It was just about me as a person,” the 46-year-old said. “It was me as a queer priest saying, ‘This is who I am. And this is what the church demands of you.’”

Varghese, 46, is an Episcopal priest who lives in New York. A queer South Asian woman, Varghese said she’s often called on to perform a “ministry of representation,” showing people what it’s like to listen to a priest with her unique identities.

As the daughter of Indian immigrants to the United States, Varghese admits that she’s something of an “odd bird” within the clergy of the Episcopal Church, a progressive, largely white, mainline Protestant denomination. And as a queer female priest, she’s also a rarity in America’s Indian Christian communities. 

Varghese’s parents are Malayalam-speaking immigrants from Kerala, a state in southern India with a significant Christian population and a variety of Christian denominations. When Indian Christian immigrants started moving to the U.S. in the 1970s, they sought to recreate these churches in America. Today, Indian churches function as vital cultural centers, providing immigrants with social networks and giving parents the opportunity to pass on their native language and traditions to future generations. Indian Christian churches also tend to be insular and hold conservative views ― which makes these spaces incredibly difficult for queer Christians to navigate.  

Varghese grew up in a small Dallas congregation linked to the Church of South India, which, like the Episcopal Church, is a member of the global Anglican Communion. When she got to college, Varghese said that it seemed natural to attend an Episcopal church. But at that point in the early 1990s, the Episcopal Church in Texas was wrestling with issues like women’s ordination and the inclusion of LGBTQ people. Varghese said that this was the first time she got a glimpse of how divisive these issues were within American Christianity.

“I came from a church that was very apolitical, very much about spirituality, having the right values, not being overly consumeristic in this culture, remembering simplicity and where we came from,” Varghese said. She contrasted that with what she saw in the Episcopal church in Texas at that time ― “a church where some people were saying that feminism and homosexuality were destroying the church. I had no idea this was tearing the church apart.”

Despite the turmoil occurring in the larger Episcopal Church, Varghese said that she continued to have faith.

“I had a really profound sense that I’m known and loved by something that was called God,” Varghese said. “So in practice, it didn’t occur to me that I could be anything but a Christian.”

Varghese felt called to the ministry while she was in college and was ordained into the Episcopal Church in 2000. She’s served as a chaplain and a priest in Los Angeles and New York. Today, she’s the director of justice and reconciliation at New York City’s Trinity Church Wall Street, where she helps direct the church’s domestic grant program. The program supports groups that are addressing structural inequality, including the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, an organization that serves queer asylum-seekers.  

Without any queer Indian Christian role models to guide her along her road to the priesthood, Varghese has had to forge her own path. She now sees herself as a resource for others — including the queer Indian Christians who she says reach out to her in private Facebook messages, who are worried that coming out publicly would sever their connections to the tight-knit, conservative Indian Christian communities in which they grew up.

Varghese said that she wants young queer Asian Christians to know that they are made in the image of God ― and that conforming to societal expectations isn’t the same thing as being Christian. 

“There’s this stereotype of Asians-Americans that we’re taught to conform to family norms and it’s true to a degree,” Varghese said. “For many of us, causing disruptions in our families or our communities is quite painful and doesn’t feel like the logical moment of rebellion that it might be in some parts of Western culture. To defy authority in Asian-American cultures can feel like denying God.”

“But it’s in the bible that we are created in the image of God,” she said. “It is our work to discern what it is to be faithful for ourselves. It might feel like lonely work. I hope it is less lonely in the future.”

Read on to hear more from Rev. Winnie Varghese. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Rev. Winnie Varghese is the Director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Wall Street church.
Trinity Wall Street
Rev. Winnie Varghese is the Director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Wall Street church.

What were the dynamics of the immigrant community you were raised in and how did that inform your childhood faith? 

When my parents came to the U.S., there weren’t a lot of Malayalee congregations in Dallas. There probably weren’t any. And as an Indian coming into Texas, not that far after the Civil Rights Act was passed, it wasn’t the easiest thing to walk into an Episcopal church at that time. 

Several families from different Indian denominations started worshipping together. Eventually, families from the Church of South India split off. My father was not from that denomination in India, but we ended up there, mostly because of how friendships lined up. 

I was raised in the C.S.I. tradition in Dallas while it was still finding itself. I didn’t have a regular priest growing up. The parents were involved in making it work and keeping it organized. I was very formed by my parents in particular, and not so much by the Indian community. 

In college, I thought if I was going to go to church by myself, I’d go to an Episcopal church. There was an Episcopal chaplaincy in my college and I felt very at home there. The only thing that was different for me was that when I went to school, between 1989 and 1994, in the Episcopal Church there was a lot of turmoil over women’s ordination in Dallas and LGBTQ people finding their place in church.

At my Indian church, we never talked about homosexuality except in relation to the HIV/AIDS crisis. I didn’t know about the culture wars at all until I went to college. I was raised to be a practicing Christian and it worked for me. I wasn’t personally conflicted about my faith and it hadn’t been political. From my parents, I had learned that the more educated you were, the more open-minded you were. So it was strange to me that you had people who were ordained, with two masters degrees, that were sexist.

Throughout it all, I had a really profound sense that I’m known and loved by something that was called God. So in practice, it didn’t occur to me that I could be anything but a Christian.

Within that cultural background, what was it like for you to realize that you were queer?

I remember it really clearly. I was attending college and I was doing some reading for a class about Biblical interpretations. I had a very distinct moment of thinking, “Oh, I’m gay.  That’s what it is.” It was like this truth coming into my body. I remember thinking at the same time that I should be a priest when I grew up. It’s the same moment in my memory.

So two things, utterly illogical to my existence, both come from outside of me but felt very embodied. I had no idea what either of these things could mean ― I’d never met women who were priests and I knew very few LGBT people who were out. At that point in life, I might have met a couple of young, mostly white, men who were very boldly out in a time when that was so difficult. I think I might have met one woman who was out, a white woman from a very different background. I wonder if what happened is that I protected myself from both of these things until I was in a place where it was safe to think about them.

What are some of the challenges facing queer Indian Christians in particular? 

I remember talking to a priest once about a man he had counseled from [an Orthodox Indian Christian denomination]. This man was an able leader and everybody loved him, the way that churches love young men who are really involved. One day, he called the priest who had known him since he was a child to say, “I’m gay, what do I do?” The priest wanted to tell him, “They’ll love you, they’ll always love you.” But the priest knew that wasn’t true. 

In the U.S., Indians find community with one another because it’s not easy to assimilate into the larger culture. Indian Christians’ [Western-sounding] names aren’t enough. I think there’s safety in the spaces we create for ourselves because of how racism works in this country. And it is tragic to exclude people from those communities that created so much identity and so much comfort. Those things that make Indian Christians feel comforted are not accessible to queer Indian Christians. It’s an unnecessary tragedy. We are so proud of our education and liberalism, our ability to adapt as a community. But there’s this barrier. It seems like a folly we need to end quickly because it causes so much harm.

I do think it’s changing. I know in my own extended family multiple people who are out and who have partners. But their parents definitely don’t tell their communities about their children. I don’t know how long that’s sustainable, since things are shifting on the ground as people live more publicly.

I also think there’s a lot of room for allies in this. For cousins, for family members to insist on including queer family members. In my family, the people who make it the easiest are the cousins who show up and insist that I should be there for family events.

Rev. Winnie Varghese was raised in an Indian Christian church.
Trinity Wall Street
Rev. Winnie Varghese was raised in an Indian Christian church.

There’s been a lot of discussion online recently about the loneliness faced by progressive Asian Christians raised in conservative, sometimes insular communities. Is that loneliness something you’ve experienced?

In some ways, I just haven’t been very present in the Indian Christian community. I don’t know them well and I’m not tied into them. 

I don’t know if I felt lonely because it’s not like I had a community to start with that was all of a sudden taken away. Part of being a progressive Asian-American is that we’re kind of used to discerning for ourselves and making community for ourselves. There’s an incredible kind of freedom to it. There’s the danger of being attached to being that one special queer Asian in the room. But generally, there’s really quite a remarkable freedom.

What are some of the factors holding the Indian Christian community back from progress on LGBTQ acceptance? 

Urban, educated people are leaving these communities. There are certain new people who come to America through the H-1 visa and attend Indian churches to find community. But there were a lot of people raised in those churches who are all in our 40s now and very few go to Indian churches. Even though these churches are doing full English services, have programs for little kids, people still don’t go. Part of it is that my generation of folks want our kids to be raised with affirming values. We don’t want to be apologizing for our culture. My friends and cousins don’t want their child who might be LGBT to hear hateful messages in church. It’s a wakeup call to the church that so many of us are leaving. Frankly, you kind of have to pay attention.

People are starting to challenge the thinking of their Indian churches, but the problem is also that we don’t stay to challenge the institution. If the church doesn’t move with the times, we just leave. Or some people just put up with it ― and they fix the teaching for their children afterwards in the car coming home from Sunday services.

What special insights do queer Christians have to offer fellow believers about following Jesus?

In the gospels, Jesus says that to follow him, you will have to leave your mother and father, sister and brothers. That makes sense to a lot of queer people. I think we get that really well ― I wonder if we get that more than anyone else gets that. The gospels also tell us that in following Jesus, you won’t necessarily be confirmed as right in this life. For most people, proclaiming the name of Jesus isn’t going to cause any controversy in the U.S., but proclaiming that I’m [as a queer Christian] made in the image of Jesus might put me in a lot of harm in some parts of the country.

The theme for our Pride Month coverage this year is “The Future is Queer.” What does a queer and inclusive future look and feel like to you?

I think being queer and inclusive would mean really reconciling who we are as Americans in this land that has been taken from its people. I think it means autonomy for the individual to claim their body and its identity and its desires and having a respect for that. I think that extends to disability. I think it means acknowledging that people have always moved and migrated and that we share land and there’s ways to do that justly and there are reparations to be made for when it has not been done justly.

I think it’s to decriminalize race and those things we use to maintain power in the hands of a few. To create space for all people to have a fair share of the bounty of the earth. I think, frankly, those aren’t crazy ideals. They’re doable. That’s a vision of America that’s completely possible if we choose it.

I think an inclusive future would mean that we become people who know how to be sorry and to repent for our mistakes. Whether it’s big, national, institutional mistakes or smaller ones. And to reform and change and to believe not just in the balance of the scales but in a substantive kind of justice for the communities we are responsible for.

How we understand sexuality was so formed by the Catholic and Protestant churches. I think the church needs to be wrestling with how we get that right. It’s good that this wrestling is happening in many places, but at this very basic level, it’s been the teachings of the church that have dictated for years what’s right and wrong for marriage, women’s bodies, sexuality and sexual health.

Even though we’re less religious as a country, even though we’re less practicing, transformation also needs to happen at religious institutions. We don’t get to just have everyone leave and find justice somewhere else. We are being used as tools for hate. We don’t have the privilege of staying silent. We really have to be vocal about this. We inherited this situation that has caused so much harm.

For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.

#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.

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