A few days ago, I got a letter from my archbishop.
I couldn't even wait to get up the stairs to my apartment. The envelope was torn long before I keyed myself into the door and I even scrambled to take a picture of the fact—wind-tossed hair, lacking makeup, it didn't matter to me. I had heard back.
In the days since I had sent our local leader my initial letter, I had worked not to worry about what he'd think.
I'd typed him an honest description of my station in life. I was honest about my years struggling with poverty, abuse, and contingent housing. I talked to him about how I had worked as a prostitute, hungry and afraid and out of options.
I told my archbishop these difficult facts about my life because I wanted him to understand who I am. I am, as Jesus put it, "one of the least of these brothers and sisters." I am someone it is easy to discriminate against, simply because my identity doesn't fit comfortably with the moral standards of society, and certainly not with those of the Church.
"Whatever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do to me," was Jesus' ancient quip as he recounted to the religious figures of his day what truly mattered in this life.
I wanted my archbishop to hear this because I wanted him to know that despite my station in life, I have value.
And anyone who shows compassion to an outcast should be treated as they are: a holy reminder of the Church's mission on earth.
When St. James wrote that "pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted" (James 1:27), he was explaining just what were the works that made faith valid.
Confronted with a status-conscious society that privileged the already-privileged wealthy and cared little for the poor, St. James sought to guide his followers to the truth of the gospel. That whatever you do for the least of these, you do to God.
That God is in the least of these.
God is among us because God knows firsthand, through Jesus, what it means to suffer on the outside bounds of society. Just as the disciples never found Jesus luxuriating among the powerful, but rather, sharing what he had with prostitutes, beggars, and sinners, so now we must continue to look for him among the people Christ once called his friends.
When I wrote my letter, I didn't expect a response. I meant only to offer him thanks for his renewed focus on social justice in our archdiocese, and to tell him that even I have found an unlikely home in his flock. But expected or not, his letter came, and it thanked me for sharing this story with him. It was clear he was glad I had found my home too, imperfect though I am.
Over the years of my contentious relationship with a church that is often characterized by its unwavering iciness to sex and gender minorities, I've struggled with the realities of being open about my identity as a transwoman, especially because it has often meant a hand withdrawn before it touches me during the kiss of the peace, or a full church and my pew noticeably empty, as no one wanted to be close to me.
I've endured accusing stares, cold shoulders, suspicion, and aggression.
In these circumstances, how can I possibly engage with God's love for me, let alone share God's compassion with my accusers?
Not that long ago, I was living in suburbs far outside of Chicago and working a soul-crushing service industry job that left little happiness for me. Although I was obviously not welcome, I attended Mass often because, as far as I was from the city with little transportation, it was my only chance to see other people outside of my miserable job. It was unpleasant, but less unpleasant than being alone all the time, and anyway I was searching for comfort in the Sacraments.
One afternoon I knelt in the broad, post-Vatican II confessional and couldn't hold the tears back. I knew the priest recognized my voice, and I knew he was suspicious of me. But I couldn't help but be honest behind the flimsy screen that separated us.
Choking back tears, I told him about my life.
How I was living in poverty, separated from my loved ones, powerless to improve my situation. "I want to love my neighbor," I confided, "and I want to forgive. But it's hard to return love for hate and get nothing in return."
He was quiet a moment, as I sat there with my tears and frustration. Then I heard him choking back tears of his own. "I'm so sorry," he confessed. "You'd think in the 21st century things would be better, and they're not. And I'm so sorry for the hurt this causes you."
Lest the significance escape, let me assure you: this is a remarkable conversation to be having with a conservative priest in a very conservative Roman Catholic parish. Here was I, imagining myself the heel and butt of the average parishioner’s attitude toward the world, and yet this honest encounter about the effects of hateful teaching was breathing new life into my priest. He was grasping compassion.
He had a glimpse into the pain that he and the rest of our parish had caused.
I moved shortly after. The housing rug had yet again been tugged from beneath my feet, and for the next several months I slept on couches until I could find an apartment with a landlord willing to give me another shot. To my great surprise, not only did I end up in a much happier place than where I'd lived before, I also found myself living in a much more welcoming parish.
That's why I was moved to write my archbishop. The stark contrast led me to believe that there is potential yet in our church to find compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance. But if I want to see the work move forward faster, then I must be honest.
I must be honest with our leaders about not just my place in life, but the effect their work has on it. Have they harmed God's "least of these," or welcomed and succored?
Compassion happens on both sides: Compassion is alive when the abuser drops his perspective and learns to listen. But compassion is also living in the oppressed who—still with kindness—is willing to be honest about the pain the abuser causes. Compassion, working through both parties, can unite the two and create a new road forward.
Sometime's it’s a letter, sometimes it's a tearful confession, sometimes it's turning the cheek.
Sometimes it happens when we withdraw ourselves from the situation and give ourselves time to heal.
Healing and change are tough work for the Roman Catholic Church, who is so often seemingly ready to cut off its nose to spite its own faith, holding hard to beliefs that push its own lambs outside the fold. But I believe that by continuing to engage our leaders with gentleness, kindness, and honesty, we may yet see greater change in our lives.
Photo provided by Leslie Rouser