As a child, I was taken to my grandmother's Baptist church in South Georgia every Christmas and Easter. While I am thankful for those experiences with her and have come to understand just how deeply and beautifully her faith has impacted me, I didn’t feel particularly connected to the church at that time. It wasn't until I was in law school that I felt a real desire to be a part of a church community on my own terms.
But many of the churches I visited didn't seem like places that could welcome all of me.
In 1999, I joined Lavender Light, one of the oldest LGBT gospel choirs in the country, and found myself at Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCCNY) as a performer for an MLK celebration the following year. I had a remarkable experience that evening, especially when it came time for communion.
While the range of theological perspectives is wide and deep among MCC churches across the country, every MCC church serves communion in a similar way. After receiving the bread and the fruit of the vine (which is grape juice at every MCC to honor those among us who are in recovery), every person who wishes receives an individual blessing that not only connects us to the significance of these elements, but also reminds us how important and valuable we all are in community.
Even though I had not grown up with any notions, good or bad, about Holy Communion and its significance in the spiritual lives of people, I was deeply moved by it. I have been part of MCC ever since.
When I started my gender transition in 2005, I was a student at Union Theological Seminary. As part of my studies, I began my clergy training at MCCNY, where a number of openly identified Trans people attended regularly. Although I respected and admired them from afar, I was still working out internally what it meant for me to transition, so I did not avail myself of their support.
But just before the end of my second year at Union, right around Easter, I shared my own journey of resurrection and transition with the faculty, students and staff.
It was a beautiful and grace-filled moment for me and everyone at the seminary, as well as the first time a student had come out as Trans as far as I know. I received countless emails, cards and flowers of support. People knocked on my door for hugs. I met with members of the administration in the days and weeks that followed, all of whom were ready to ensure that my needs in community would be met. And I felt deeply held from the time I came out as a Trans person of faith to the time I graduated.
When I left New York, I went to Vision of Hope MCC (VOH) in Lancaster County, PA to complete my training. Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting to find much support because of its location and overall religious conservatism in the area. But I was pleasantly surprised! When I arrived in March 2007, I was greeted by several leaders in the church, two of whom were Trans-identified. VOH had a solid network of Trans folks in the church, was supportive of outreach to the wider Trans community, and was Trans friendly in a way that the wider community often was not. Therefore, the church became a very open and safe place for gender nonconforming (GNC) people to openly express all of who they were, and I had found a place wherein I could learn and grow and find my new voice (figuratively and literally!).
As an out, trans-identified student clergy person, I was often in a position to provide support for others in our community.
The pastoral leaders and congregants of VOH offered guidance on how to provide this support, and I learned valuable lessons about maintaining good boundaries and taking care of myself at the same time. Ultimately, I was not only their clergy candidate, but I also served as their Director of Worship and Congregational Care and remained a worship leader until 2012, when I was endorsed for ordination.
While VOH was my safe haven for several years, living in central Pennsylvania was both an incredible joy and a great challenge. As much as I was becoming more comfortable in my skin as a Trans man, I was also grappling in new ways with being a black man in a society that can often wear its prejudices on its sleeve. I encountered more overt racism than I had ever experienced in any place I had lived before.
As a person of faith, who also happens to be of African descent, who also happens to be Trans, I began to develop a deeper awareness of the ways in which faith informs how I seek justice in and for my communities.
It is not just about creating safe restroom space, although that is important. It is not just about using someone’s preferred gender pronouns, although that is important. I believe it is about fostering deeper connections among people, meeting people where they are and not where we want them to be, and seeing that which is unique about all of us as a representation of the Divine within us.
But folks often do not see the beauty in one another first, as I believe Jesus and others taught us. Far too many of us size each other up based on the color of our skin, presumptions about gender presentation, how much money or education we may or may not have, and to whom we pray. We make value judgments about who is worthy of support and care, and those of us who are deemed unworthy are often left out and left behind.
We can't talk about justice for all of us in the Trans community without noting, for example, that most of the people we memorialize on the Transgender Day of Remembrance are black and brown transgender women. These women walked out of their homes every day, if they even had a place to call home, not only with the weight of transphobia on their backs, but also with the very real impact of racism to reckon with. All of these elements had an impact on how they were received in and spit out by the world around them.
Issues of class and access are equally and intricately woven into trans issues.
Before coming out as Trans, I worked at the LGBT rights arm of a national social justice organization for a few years as a lawyer and observed how easily we could talk about mistreatment from a sexuality, and sometimes gender, perspective. But we could not talk about how we were bringing our own classism, racism, and gender bias into discussions about legal protections for all LGBT people.
Trans and GNC people from all walks of life are marginalized and dehumanized on a multitude of levels. If we really want sustainable change to happen in our churches, our workplaces, our schools and our homes, we all have to act on these issues just as swiftly and with as much vigor as we hand out lists of terms for people to become familiar with.
As I say these things, I’m also keenly aware of the fact that black and brown people shouldn’t be the only ones who care and do something about issues of race and class. We all have a part to play in the march toward freedom, and it begins with acknowledging the places from where we enter and continues with our willingness to educate ourselves and share that knowledge and that spirit of deeper connection with others.
As the founder and lead organizer of 4LYFE Ministries, I have been blessed to encounter people across a broad spectrum of church leadership.
Regular attendees, lay leaders of every sort and pastors alike have all stepped boldly into an often new and sometimes renewed commitment to open their doors with greater intention to people of varying sexual orientations and gender identities.
It warms my heart to see and sometimes be a part of the shift that happens, not just in people’s minds, but also in their hearts, when we begin to understand the value of truly celebrating the lives of all the people of God. It is precisely what 4LYFE, or Living Your Faith Everyday, is all about!
This narrative is an except from an interview by Becky Garrison with Rev. Mykal Slack. They sat down together for some tea in Boston where Rev. Slack serves as a Residency Manager in order to glean his insights on creating radically welcoming spaces.