Finding a church home can be difficult for anyone, although those who are transgender may face a particularly difficult search.
Reverend Mother Grace Ferris aims to change that and over the past year has created an online community specifically for transgender believers who, as Ferris says, “cling to their faith, not the church. “.
Called St. Wilgefortis TransMISSION, the ministry is under the umbrella of St. John of God Parish, Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA), which holds a Mass on Eastern Parkway in Schenectady.
“It all happened by surprise with holy spirit in the lead,” Ferris said in an interview with the Daily Gazette earlier this year.
She had been in ministry for some time before finding CACINA, which is a small Christian denomination with roots dating back to 1945. Although it celebrates some of the Catholic traditions, CACINA is independent of the Roman Catholic Church.
Ferris, who was ordained a Southern Baptist minister, appreciated that CACINA celebrates the sacraments and retains some of the other traditional liturgies while accepting and celebrating those from the LGBTQ community.
St. John of God Parish was founded six years ago by Bishop Tony Green, who is also pastoral director at Ellis Medicine.
“[I] found the need for an independent Catholic church here,” Green said.
Ferris approached Green about CACINA a few years ago and decided to get ordained. Around this time, Grace identified as male and went by Gary. It wasn’t until the pandemic that Ferris realized she was transgender. She was serving in the National Guard at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Syracuse and Ferris said one night she had a living dream where she was a female priest.
“. . . the marching orders I received were ‘Okay, wise, now that you know how I made you. There is something I want you to do for me,” Ferris said.
After lying awake the rest of the night praying and writing, Ferris said, “By the time I showed up for work at eight o’clock the next morning, I had decided I was transgender.”
That evening also sparked the idea of TransMISSION, one of the relatively few ministries that specifically aims to serve transgender people.
When Ferris came to Green and the church community, they supported him.
Dating in the National Guard community and the senior community where she lives has had its ups and downs.
“I called the commander [of my unit] and everyone has been great. I’ve had one or two soldiers who don’t like the fact that I’m transgender. . . Most of the soldiers are younger, and for them it’s nothing,” Ferris said.
In the senior community, about half of the other residents agreed, Ferris said. Her five adult children have also been very supportive of the change.
However, she was harassed.
“I get hate messages all the time. I got a death threat,” Ferris said.
She’s not alone either. According to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, transgender people are more than four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violence, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault. .
“I always tell people [to] be careful. Be careful what you post and if you are visible and vocal you become vulnerable. I tell people to be careful about it,” Ferris said.
“I made a conscious decision to be visible and vocal because I feel that in a ministry like this I must and would not be an effective pastor to this community if I wasn’t, but that involves risks and I’m ready for them.”
Her journey has made Ferris better equipped to deal with transgender people and there is certainly a need for that as there are relatively few ministries that focus on supporting transgender believers.
“The sad reality is that when people come out as transgender, it’s not uncommon for families to disown them and for churches to kick them out,” Ferris said.
On the public Facebook page where Ferris shares his ministry, called Saint Wilgefortis TransMISSION, there are about 175 followers. There is also a private page, where community members can interact on a more private level. Some community members are based overseas and others in the United States.
“The truth is, transgender people are everywhere. So the mission works online,” Ferris said.
Ferris produces a “Just As I Am” podcast almost weekly, which features news and current events of interest to the loyal transgender community, as well as interviews. Episodes are shared on the Facebook page, as are weekly services at St. John of God Parish.
With TransMISSION, Ferris aims to make a place for the transgender community, offering messages of support, encouragement and, most often, humor. When it comes to sharing the sacraments, Ferris helps connect TransMISSION members with supporting churches, like St. John of God and other CACINA churches.
“Grace is. . . such a great role model for being your authentic self,” Green said.
The TransMISSION ministry aligns well with the mission of St. John of God Parish, which is to be inclusive of everyone. Green is openly gay and married to Perry Junjulas, the executive director of the Albany Damien Center, and on Sundays the congregation typically includes a mix of LGBTQ and straight attendees.
The parish hosts services at Eastern Parkway United Methodist Church in Schenectady and has between 20 and 30 people who call St. John of God their church. There is no official membership and they do not take offerings during mass.
” We are growing. We’re here with the Methodists and they’ve been very kind and welcoming,” Green said.
“We try to create welcome symbols,” Green said. They have rainbow flags to show support for the LGBT community and other flags to show support for black and brown communities.
Through St. John of God, Green hopes to start a parish for those who haven’t felt welcome elsewhere.
“It’s just sad that . . . every Sunday every church preaches the love of God and Christ and yet, at the end of the day, that’s not quite the reality,” Green said.
“People ask me how I reconcile being transgender and Catholic, and it’s easy. I have the Bible to do that,” Ferris said, citing passages where Jesus Christ states that the most important commandments are to love the Lord and to love one another.
“Unfortunately, people have used scriptures or sacred writings everywhere for oppression for thousands of years,” Green said.
Ferris agreed. “People take the word of God and turn it into a bullet and shoot it at somebody else and that’s not what Christ was,” Ferris said.
To learn more about TransMISSION, visit Saint Wilgefortis TransMISSION on Facebook and to learn more about St. John of God Parish, visit saintjohnofgodparish.info.
A note on the name:
Saint Wilgefortis is a figure in folk tales from several cultures and she is often referred to as the holy brill. According to some accounts, Wilgefortis was the Christian daughter of a pagan king and had taken a vow of virginity. She was troubled when her father promised her his hand in marriage and she prayed to get through it. Overnight, she is said to have grown a beard, which stopped the marriage and for which her father had her crucified.
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