Finding a church home can be difficult for anyone, though those who are transgender can face a particularly difficult search.
Rev. Mother Grace Ferris aims to change that and over the last year has created an online community specifically for transgender believers who, as Ferris puts it “cling to their faith and not the church.”
Called St. Wilgefortis TransMISSION, the ministry is under the umbrella of St. John of God Parish, a Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA), which holds mass on Eastern Parkway in Schenectady.
“This all came about by surprise with the holy spirit leading,” Ferris said during 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. While it celebrates some of the Catholic traditions, CACINA is independent of the Roman Catholic Church.
Ferris, who was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, appreciated that CACINA celebrated the sacraments and still held on to some of the other traditional liturgies while accepting and celebrating those in the LGBTQ community.
St. John of God Parish was founded six years ago by Bishop Tony Green, who is also the director of pastoral care at Ellis Medicine.
“[I] found a need for an independent Catholic church here,” Green said.
Ferris approached Green about CACINA a few years ago and decided to become ordained. At that time, Grace identified as a man and went by Gary. It wasn’t until the pandemic that Ferris understood 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 vivid dream where she was a female priest.
“. . . the marching orders that I got were ‘Alright, wiseass, now that you know how I made you. There’s something I want you to do for me,’” Ferris said.
After staying up the rest of that night praying and writing, Ferris said “By the time I reported for duty at eight o’clock, the next morning, I had decided I was transgender.”
That evening also sparked the idea for TransMISSION, one of the relatively few ministries that specifically aims to serve transgender people.
When Ferris came out to Green and the church community, they were supportive.
Coming out to the National Guard community and to the senior living community where she lives had some ups and downs.
“I called the commander [of my unit] and everybody’s been great. I had one or two soldiers who don’t like the fact that I’m transgender. . . Most of the soldiers are younger, and to them, it’s nothing,” Ferris said.
In the senior living community, about half of the other residents have been accepting, said Ferris. Her five grown children have also been quite supportive of the change.
However, she has faced harassment.
“I do get hate mail all the time. I had one death threat,” Ferris said.
She’s not alone either. Transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault and aggravated or simple assault, according to a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.
“I always tell people [to] be careful. Be careful what you post and if you’re visible and vocal, you become vulnerable. I tell people to be cautious about that,” Ferris said.
“I made the conscious decision to be visible and vocal because I think in a ministry like this I have to and wouldn’t be an effective pastor to this community if I wasn’t, but that comes with its risks and I’m ready for them.”
Her journey has made Ferris better equipped to minister to transgender people and there’s definitely a need for that since 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 her ministry, called Saint Wilgefortis TransMISSION, there are around 175 followers. There’s also a private page, where people in the community can interact on a more confidential level. Some of the community members are based overseas and others are stateside.
“The truth of the matter is transgender people are everywhere. So the mission works being online,” Ferris said.
Ferris produces a “Just As I Am” podcast just about every week, which features news and current events of interest to the faithful transgender community, as well as interviews. The episodes are shared on the Facebook page, as are St. John of God parish’s weekly services.
With TransMISSION, Ferris aims to provide a place for the transgender community, offering messages of support, encouragement, and, more often than not, humor. When it comes to sharing the sacraments, Ferris helps to connect TransMISSION members with supportive 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 fits in well with the mission of St. John of God Parish, which is to be inclusive of anyone and everyone. Green is openly gay and married to Perry Junjulas, the executive director of the Albany Damien Center, and on Sundays, the congregation usually includes a mix of LGBTQ and straight attendees.
The parish hosts services at the Eastern Parkway United Methodist Church in Schenectady and has between 20 and 30 people who call St. John of God their church home. There is no official membership and they do not take offerings during mass.
“We’re growing. We’re here with the Methodists and they’ve been very kind and welcoming,” Green said.
“We try to make symbols of welcome,” 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 create a parish for those that haven’t felt welcomed anywhere else.
“It’s just sad that . . . every Sunday, every church is preaching the love of God and Christ and yet when it comes down to it, it’s not quite reality,” Green said.
“People ask 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 declares the most important commandments are to love the Lord and to love each other.
“Unfortunately, people have used scriptures or holy writings all around 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 all about,” Ferris said.
For more on TransMISSION visit Saint Wilgefortis TransMISSION on Facebook and for more on St. John of God Parish visit saintjohnofgodparish.info.
A note on the name:
Saint Wilgefortis is a figure in the folk tales of several cultures and she’s often referred to as the bearded saint. According to some narratives, Wilgefortis was the Christian daughter of a pagan king and had taken a vow of virginity. She was troubled when her father promised her hand in marriage and she prayed for a way out of it. Overnight, she is said to have grown a beard, which stopped the wedding and for which her father had her crucified.