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PC(USA) churches in New York provide a genuine welcome to all God’s children

Transgender ministries are transforming churches

by Mike Givler | Presbyterians Today

A church in Hudson River Presbytery recently welcomed Mother Grace Wilgefortis Ferris, center, to preach at a pride service. (Photo courtesy of Susan DeGeorge)

“Welcoming all in the name of Christ” might be easy to write into a church’s mission statement, but the challenge comes when faced with living it out and extending a hand to those in the transgender community. An inclusive, loving welcome is possible, though, with education and courage to open up those sanctuary doors.

People were being persecuted for their beliefs. They had to dodge rocks and shield themselves from spit being hurled in their direction. No, this is not a reference to a biblical story that occurred 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. This happened in 2020 in a small, suburban area in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where the hatred was aimed at middle school youth who are transgender.

As word spread around the Auburn, New York, community about the bullying, leaders at Westminster Presbyterian Church started conversations about needing to provide a space for these teens. The church, which held its first pride service a year earlier, knew it had to step up to meet this demand in the community.

“The need for something was so much greater than we thought it was,” said Chris Patch, the youth and children ministries coordinator at Westminster Church. “There was really nothing here for these youth. There was no real safe place for them to gather.”

What came out of the talks was the Pride House, a space in Westminster Church dedicated to LGBTQIA+ youth ages 13–18 and their allies where they can come together, enjoy each other’s company and create a bond between one another.

“I visited another facility, and after my conversation there they expressed to me that if we want to get these kids to keep coming, you have to build trust and a relationship first,” explained Patch, who doubles as the director of the Pride House. “You’re not going to get that by having another class of some kind.”

A haven of acceptance

One day a week, the Pride House has an informal, drop-in format. The space has rooms equipped with a television, video games and art supplies, and the teens can stop in anytime they want during the three-hour window the Pride House is open. Pizza and snacks are also available at this hangout in the education wing of the church that brings on average 10–15 youth through the door.

“There’s a lot of relationships that are developed there,” said Patch. “We have kids from different surrounding areas that have all grown together now.”

Pride House is working well because it is a concept that is driven by youth.

“What we’ve done is that we have really looked at this and had a lot of it be youth-driven. ‘What do you need?’ Instead of trying to give them what we think they need, we really engaged with them and said, ‘What do you think you need? What’s the next step?’” said Patch.

While located in a church, the Pride House is not pushing religion. While several of the LGBTQIA+ youth have started to become involved in the life of the church in programs like the annual pride service, this sort of participation is not expected.

“We’re not trying to say this is a church function. We’re not trying to get them to go to church,” said Patch. “That was an important part for this ministry because a lot of these youth have come from varied backgrounds and have had a lot of religious trauma. A lot of them have been to churches where they have been persecuted, told that they’re sinning, told they’re not good enough. Now what they see is a church giving this care to them but without expecting anything back.”

What is surprising, though, is that now a lot of the youth in the group have started asking questions about the church, which was something Patch and others from the church hadn’t intended on.

“What the teens are seeing is how the church has supported them and how we work through God. They’re starting to have questions and take more of an active role in the church,” he added.

This past October, a second night at the Pride House was started. On this evening, educational programs were added to include classes focusing on things like culinary skills, sewing, judo and yoga. Patch hopes to continue to expand the availability of the Pride House going forward, adding days for LGBTQIA+ young adults (ages 18–24) and possibly even a parents group night.

“We want to provide a place where youth can just be themselves, where they can come, have fun, be safe and build relationships,” said Patch.

Giving the LGBTQIA+ youth a road map to these experiences is key and something the Pride House is continuing to develop. “We’re really trying to create this flow,” said Patch, explaining that by starting with middle school teens, they can better navigate high school. And once they graduate from high school, the Pride House has a relationship with Cayuga Community College, where they can move those relationships.

“We’re really trying to create this pathway for all the youth to develop relationships, feel safe and have that group of friends they can move from school to school with and hang out during the summer. We tried to think more about just having something on Thursdays. It’s about this full circle of providing for youth,” said Patch.

Close to home

The Pride House hits close to home for Patch, who is the parent of a trans child. The same goes for Linda Webster, a member of the Pride House advisory board and weekly volunteer. Webster wishes something like the Pride House would have been around when her child was younger.

“It’s wonderful work for kids to network, meet each other, spend time, get to know each other and have friendships even outside of school. The kids can know that there are other people in the school system who are like them, they can relate to and give them a core group of adults that they can trust. They know they can be themselves. They don’t have to put on a mask and be anything other than uniquely themselves,” she said.

Westminster Church has clearly been integral in the development of the Pride House, having donated the space to use while also providing funding to help with many of the early setup costs. The Pride House has also received funds from the Osborne Foundation that are assisting with programing costs. Fundraising efforts through things like T-shirt sales are ongoing to help the Pride House remain open.

‘We’re really trying to create this pathway for all the youth to develop relationships, feel safe and have that group of friends they can move from school to school with and hang out during the summer.’ — Chris Patch

“If we didn’t have the support of the church, the congregation and their hearts weren’t moved by God to provide this for us, it wouldn’t have been successful,” said Patch. But not everyone’s heart is open, and Patch admits there have been “a lot of raised eyebrows.”

Initially, the location of the Pride House was not widely known to the community for fear of pushback. However, there hasn’t been any resistance to the gathering place in its first 12 months.

“I’ve heard some things in the community that they don’t like us, that we’re pushing this agenda, but as far as anyone showing up at the church and giving anyone a hassle, we haven’t had any of that,” said Patch.

Patch is prepared, however, for any confrontation that could come his way. He knows there are many who feel catering to the transgender community is a sin. He simply doesn’t see it that way.

“If you read the Bible, if you read it in context and you really want to get into original language and original history, you’ll find that there isn’t anything in the Bible that says anything against this. The Bible is a book of relationships and forgiveness and how we interact with that relationship with God,” he said, adding, “Personally, I think any person who uses the Bible to discriminate against somebody, I don’t think they’re understanding what the Bible is about.”

Equipping congregations

Just to the southeast of Auburn in the lower corner of New York, Hudson River Presbytery is also trying to help Christians promote the welcome of transgender and LGBTQIA+ people’s viewpoints. The Presbyterian mid council has approved the establishment of HRPQueer — a partnership that formed in the summer of 2022 with the goal of equipping congregations in the presbytery with needed support and resources to help them become more welcoming.

The four organizers of HRPQueer — the Rev. Susan DeGeorge, the Rev. Ray Bagnuolo, Connie Knapp and Kathy Dean — are all out queer clergy or ruling elders. DeGeorge, the stated clerk at Hudson River, preaches in and visits many different churches throughout the year as part of her position at the presbytery. She regularly heard the struggles of churches on how to be inclusive and felt this was something the presbytery should address.

“As I talk to pastors, they say, ‘I have one or two nonbinary kids and we don’t know what to do,’” DeGeorge said. “‘We’re trying to be welcoming, but we don’t have any resources and we’re by ourselves.’ We decided to roll this out in 2021 and see where it could go before we became a partnership.”

The bond with HRPQueer has already created new awareness among some congregations in Hudson River to increase the number of churches holding pride services during the summer. Among the changes made for the pride services was the language in hymns to make them more inclusive.

For instance, in the Glory to God hymnal, a verse in the song “In the Midst of New Dimensions” says, “We are man and we are woman, all persuasions, old and young.” The beginning of that line was rewritten to say, “We are cis and we are queer.”

“It’s small changes like that, but you have to look at the hymns and figure out how to make them in order to be more welcoming,” said DeGeorge. “We’re living into it and trying to live into each of these different directions, all of which need things to be done.” And it doesn’t stop with the hymns.

“You have to look at your prayers as well,” said DeGeorge, adding that the Bible has a whole range of wonderful language for God. “One of the ruling elders in our presbytery said, ‘We talk about God as a trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and 3-in-1, that’s a “they.” Why are we not using “they” and “them” pronouns as well for God?’”

For DeGeorge, it really comes down to paying careful attention, not just to language but to how people are welcomed and how they know that they are welcomed. “People assume, ‘I’m a Presbyterian, people must know we are welcoming.’ It’s not that easy.” DeGeorge knows this firsthand.

A long struggle

DeGeorge has been fighting the battle for inclusiveness for years. She was in the middle of the well-known Benton v. Hudson River Presbytery court case that dealt with the officiating of a same-sex marriage in the late 1990s. The Presbyterian denomination, in a landmark ruling in 2014, changed the definition of a marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people” while also allowing pastors to perform such ceremonies where it is legal.

While many congregations thought this ruling had clarified gender issues in the church, much has transpired in the years since that marriage policy ruling to make the waters murky again for some.

“Nobody has really been doing anything to think about what’s next,” said DeGeorge, pointing out that most people have not gone beyond the marriage policy nor in broadening the traditional “LGBT” identifier.

DeGeorge and her wife, Kathy Dean, were part of the HRPQueer team that presented an overview about the program at Hudson River’s September meeting. It was an eye-opening summation of the ministry for many in attendance.

“A mother talked about her experience raising a nonbinary child, then a queer pastor talked about how to work with these kids,” said Dean. “People were clapping. A lot of us were crying.”

“I could look at the range of people who were touched by the stories,” DeGeorge added. “You could watch the response. I have real hope. It was very touching.”

‘God created all of us — good and beautiful. We need to be able to be our best selves, and our best selves are our truest selves, which include our sexuality and whoever God meant us to really be gender-wise.    — The Rev. Susan DeGeorge

Hope is certainly a key ingredient for those who are looking to educate people who do not accept or scorn those who are different, but arming churches and communities with resources will help take the acceptance level up a few notches as well. It’s a work in progress, something DeGeorge and Dean are graciously willing to accept as their calling at this time.

“Some see God as a rule maker and gatekeeper. That’s just a worldview I can’t adopt. I think our churches are not meant to be gatekeepers for who is to be welcomed. I think it breaks God’s heart every time that happens,” said DeGeorge, who prefers to see God as love.

“God created all of us — good and beautiful. We need to be able to be our best selves, and our best selves are our truest selves, which include our sexuality and whoever God meant us to really be gender-wise,” she said. “And when we are able to be our true selves and are accepted, that’s when the church becomes what it is meant to be: a radically welcoming community.”

Mike Givler is the communications coordinator for the Synod of the Trinity.

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