by Katrin Grace
During his annual visit to our church today, the bishop will baptize Evanna. She’s a tall, somewhat plump transgender woman of seventeen, who wears floor-length dresses, a long, styled wig, and generally looks like she could use a shave. She joined our Episcopal parish three months ago.
Our church has one other trans member, my sixteen-year-old son, Max. He grew up here, a boyish girl and now simply a boy: shy and unobtrusive aside from his red Converse high-tops. Max isn’t here today, but I think of him as I take a seat. All around me sit mothers with preschoolers coloring with crayons. This is a safe place, yet instinctively I watch people’s reactions toward LGBTQ people. I look out for Evanna as if she were my own child.
To organ music the bishop, in his long, white linen vestments, gold tallis, and tall miter, proceeds up the red carpet. One of the priests flanking him carries the symbolic shepherd’s crook. The gold-and-white-clad group of priests includes our rector, a petite, short-haired woman of about seventy who is love incarnate.
The bishop turns to the congregation and, in his southern drawl, an Arkansas voice not unlike Bill Clinton’s, he offers prayers. He’s a jovial man in his early fifties. He chooses Matthew 3:1-12, a passage about John the Baptist, both as the day’s Gospel reading and as the subject for his sermon. “The world in which we find ourselves,” he says, is “becoming more and more wild by the day.” The bishop describes our country as characterized by fear, misunderstanding, and hate. Even in cities, “this is the kind of wilderness that is right there with us. It is a time of fear.”
He urges us to remember the prophet in camel’s hair, the eater of locusts and wild honey, an important character in the Jesus story. “Prepare yourself for the arrival of Jesus inside of this church and inside of you,” says the bishop. “God writes straight with crooked lives. God writes straight with a crooked world.”
Am I the only one in the congregation who notices the irony of the bishop continually using the word straight prior to baptizing Evanna? He explains, “the straight way is the way of light and calm and peace . . . of following who God wants us to be.”
The area around the altar fills with adults and teenagers who will be receiving confirmations and renewing vows. Evanna, the sole person to be baptized, has no family member with her.
One of the priests presents “the candidate for holy baptism.” Unlike a number of trans people I know, Evanna has succeeded in transitioning with the minimum of fuss. Today she wears a long black dress, no jewelry or wig over her brown hair, and sneakers. Her short sleeves reveal stocky arms. “Shy” would not be an accurate description for Evanna—she’s a gregarious presence at coffee hour. Now, at the altar, her dark eyes focused on the bishop, she appears somewhat frozen.
Evanna makes eye contact with me and smiles. I think she knows I care for her, worry about her. One of her new friends from the parish, a young man, serves as her sponsor. “I present Evanna to receive the Sacrament of Baptism,” he says.
“Do you desire to be baptized?” the bishop asks.
“I do,” says Evanna.
The usual questions and prayers from The Book of Common Prayer follow. With every statement made, Evanna’s countenance becomes more serene. My shoulders relax. No one, not even a teenager, is snickering. I sense there is no judgment in this church. No fear. Only love.
At the baptismal font, Evanna bends forward. “Evanna, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen,” our rector says and splashes her face. “Evanna, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
One of the deacons lights a candle and says, “Receive the light of Christ as a sign that you have passed from darkness into light. Shine as his light in the world to the glory of God the Father.”
Evanna, holding the candle, faces the congregation.
“Let us welcome the newly baptized!” says the bishop.
Loudly, from the heart, the congregation cheers and claps. Evanna breaks into a big grin but her eyes glisten. She’s crying. I shed a tear, as well. I’m feeling uplifted, feeling the presence of God.
Evanna walks away to join our rector to the side, but the bishop says, “Come back. I’m not done with you yet.” She looks to him, confused. One of the deacons takes Evanna’s candle for her.
What happens next is unscripted. Usually the officiant sprinkles water on the congregation as a reminder of their own baptisms, and I’ve never seen a parishioner perform the act. The bishop explains the task to Evanna while handing her a pine branch and a glass bowl of water.
Evanna looks at him as if she can hardly believe what she’s hearing. I cannot help but laugh. She takes a step forward, dips the pine branch, and tentatively flicks a bit of water at the front row.
“Go ahead,” says the bishop. “Say ‘remember your baptism’!”
After looking at him questioningly one more time, Evanna repeats the words with more force. Soon she’s gleefully parading down the aisle, waving the branch, calling out
“Remember your baptism!”
The congregation laughs and cheers.
Evanna grins. This is her day. She walks the full length of the sanctuary twice, giving us all a spray with the pine branch. Her long arm creates a wide arc of water spraying on our hair, faces, and hymnbooks. “Remember your baptism!” she says. I hear the tenor of her voice and feel the power of her words. The moment is all at once sacred and silly, worshipful and fun, “gay” and Christian.
In such joyful events, the church moves forward. A space opens for the next LGBTQ person to find a church home. And a space opens for another congregation to grow in compassion, to embrace the core message Jesus taught: Love your neighbor as yourself. It is a message people in the United States badly need to hear.
I have hope that churches, and houses of worship everywhere, will become more accepting of LGBTQ people, who are often abandoned instead. The fact that Evanna courageously ventured into our church is a good sign. It’s also significant that our bishop, responsible for more than a hundred congregations, gave Evanna his public blessing.
Katrin Grace is an author and editor (and Episcopalian) living in the Pacific Northwest