When I arrived in Chapel Hill my freshman year, I tried to find a church where I might feel at home.
I tried a few Baptist churches, even one Methodist, but nothing quite felt right. I felt awkward with Christianity, like there was some sort of wall separating us. I tried to compensate with my own Bible studies, but still, I went in finding the same old story, one that went something like this:
Once upon a time there was a bad old world (or maybe a bad young one) and there were some people in it who were for various reasons awful. God, who had made that world, was sort of disgusted by it and was looking forward to wiping it out of the cosmos.
Just to be fair, the old maker god went down into the world as a man to tell folks to repent, to participate in the right rituals or say the right words, or feel the right feelings, and afterwards to live right, you know, listen to men and to avoid alcohol, sex outside of marriage, and having questions about God. If folks did all that right, then God would scoop them up just before he came back to burn the world down. The end.
I couldnt find room for a trans woman in that story. I also couldnt find much room for Christ the boundary crosser, the unconditional lover, the world flipper. Its not that I ever actually believed that story was true with my whole heart and soul, but that I was afraid it was, afraid that for all the apparent beauty and complexity in the world it would just turn out that reality was a simple, ugly place. I had nightmares. It was like living in a giant haunted house, a cosmos haunted by a gigantic abusive boyfriend who kept saying he didnt want to hurt you, but would if you made him angry.
Three things saved me from those fears.
The first was taking Bart Erhmans introduction to the New Testament the spring of my freshman year. I was blown away by the critical approaches to scripture I learned there. Learning to deal with scripture as a piece of art created by faithful people in response to their understanding and experiences of the divine in the world and in other people is maybe ten thousand times more interesting and hopeful than imagining scripture as the inerrant mouthpiece for an angry deity who is at once distant and needy.
The biggest difference is realizing that scripture is a work with many authors, with many narratives. Not all of these narratives absolutely agree with one another. There are stories like Noahs where God is willing to drown the majority of humanity for its offenses and stories like Jonahs where God decided not to destroy the city of Nineveh because of His concern for the hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left and also many animals.
Youre forced to decide for yourself what you believe. Do you believe that God is loving of everyone, the oppressor and the oppressed, or does God play favorites? Are there Good People and Bad People, or are there just people? Could anything so wonderful as Christ setting us free actually be true?Basic training
The second thing that shaped my understanding of Christianity was reading the Hebrew Bible at Basic Training.
Ive always loved reading, and what I found there blew me away. Once I stopped reading it a few verses at a time, trying to extract some secret meaning or moral lesson specifically about my life and situation out of each point of study I discovered a library of beautiful, violent, ugly, deeply human stories.
I remember sitting out at the riflery range reading the story of the Judge Ehud and how he murdered King Eglon for the sake of his people or how Absolam tried to steal the throne of his father David. They werent neat, fluffy lamb stories, they were strange stories more Mario Puzo than Sunday School.
I came back from basic with these two understandings competing in my mind: the academic, critical understanding of scripture and Christianity as a dynamic historical object shaped by numerous social and cultural realities and this amazing set of stories and essays and ideas that so strongly spoke to me, stories in which I saw the movement of the Spirit, the work of Christ. I saw stories wild and strange enough to maybe have a place for someone like me. Like a stray dog
What tied it together was that I kept meeting folks from the Chapel of the Cross, the Episcopal parish on the edge of campus. I began hanging around the parish in much the same way a stray dog will hang around your porch if youre unwise enough to feed her.
There was a contemplative service on Sunday evening called Compline. It was a centuries old sung evening prayer service. It took about half an hour, but it left me refreshed. There were also women priests and openly gay people in the parish.
It was a shock at first. I almost couldnt believe that there was a church where I felt free to reach for the Lord without having to constantly fight those same fights over and over again. It also felt like a place of freedom.
Late one night after two or three months of hanging around, I awkwardly, slowly, with many explanations and annotations came out to my friend John in the parish office. Afterwards I was amazing. I was trans in church.
There was room for me. There was a foundation of ancient tradition and enough to room to dream for the future. There was a place for both certainty and uncertainty, fear and faith. It was home. Viv Taylor graduated from UNC, served as a chaplains assistant in Iraq and wrote about the experience as Sam Taylor for The Chapel Hill News from 2010-12. This is the third in a series of new columns about her transgender journey.
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