Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Vista Grande's Radical Welcome

You may have read recent articles about what's happening at Vista Grande UCC. Their story (in particular, the story of member Patricia King) has been featured by the Colorado Springs Gazette, National Public Radio, and most recently, the New York Times

King is a parent, a member of the US Army (infantry), and a transgender woman who came out earlier this year. She joined Vista Grande this past summer. 

Rev. Clare Twomey (left) and Patricia King grabbing dinner
Her story is fascinating, especially considering her circumstances. Colorado Springs is home to several conservative religious organizations and mega-churches. Add that to the fact that she's in the military, and there's some serious bravery involved here. 

Fortunately, she found a spiritual home at Vista Grande. Even though the church is Open and Affirming, it had little previous experience with transgender members. When Patricia joined the church, it gave them an opportunity to walk the walk--and they did, magnificently. 

In the articles linked above, Patricia's story is told beautifully. Coming from a place of strong faith, she wasn't sure she'd be accepted in any church as a female. But, when she attended Vista Grande and felt radically welcomed, she knew she'd found a home. "The goal is to be accepted and celebrated," she told me. 

About a month ago, I reached out to Vista Grande's pastor, Rev. Clare Twomey. What began as a 20-minute phone call evolved into an hour-long conversation. She offered so much helpful information, but after we talked, I just felt more curious. 

Clare graciously invited me to attend Vista Grande's Thanksgiving service so that I could meet Patricia and the rest of the congregation. I was honored to accept. (They also held a Thanksgiving potluck that day, which was amazing. I'd like to think they made those carrots just for me.) 

During my visit, I experienced amazing community. Rev. Twomey tempered her warm and authentic message with wonderfully dry humor. The service was interactive; she asked the congregation non-rhetorical questions and wanted honest answers. The choir and accompanist were stunning (there are some serious pipes down there in the Springs). After someone answered a question of Clare's, Clare laughed and responded, "How am I not surprised you would say that?" 

The potluck that followed was the highlight for me, because we had a chance to interact with members of the church. I met with new and familiar faces alike, one of those new faces being Patricia. 

Something surprised me when I spoke to Patricia: I didn't think about her gender much at all. I'd like to say that it's a positive reflection on me, but it had much more to do with the fact that Patricia, like anyone else, speaks about herself as a human being first.  

While we talked about her career in the army, her children, her decision to come out and transition, and her relationships within the church, I didn't think about the bravery it must have taken to come out, and about the adversity she must face every day. It didn't occur to me until later that she likely gets stared at and judged, all the time, everywhere she goes. She was so kind and honest, and the environment was so natural, that I forgot about the harsh realities that exist outside of the church's walls. 

Her bravery isn't lost on me today. She was the first openly transgender army infantry soldier. Think about that for a second. That's insane. But when we talked, she spoke about her relationships with the people of the church and her passion for her career. She talked about loving the after-church social every week, because that's where she experiences community the most. She talked about how much she loves Clare and her sermons, and about the people who've recently joined Vista Grande because of Patricia's story. She also talked about food in Louisiana, which made us both hungry. 

All of this is to say that Patricia's narrative is powerful and inspiring, but her gender is simply a fact about her; the real story is about Patricia the person, and about all of the other people at Vista Grande. 

Before we left, Patricia said to me, "I know that you're writing a story about me, and that's fine, but this is really about the church." If I had to extrapolate on that further, I would say that Patricia and Vista Grande have experienced parallel journeys. Patricia's was personal, Vista Grande's was communal. 

It's easy to imagine a church that would have suffered division and splintering because of Patricia joining. This kind of happens all the time. But instead, Vista Grande became stronger and even more radically welcoming after Patricia arrived, and Patricia was affirmed in the process. That's pretty incredible. 

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