In the last edition of Prism, I shared a communication between myself and Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary's Episcopal Church. Burke is on the steering committee of Christians for Equality, or CFE, the social justice ministry of the Alaskan Christian Conference. This coalition of Christian leaders and clergy come together to offer mutual aid and support for one another, provide action and shared witness for social justice, and provide platforms for continued education and training.
CFE is proof that as LGBTQ+ identified people, we have options for those that feel the desire for faith and spirituality in their lives. At times, what provides solace for so many, is a source of suffering for us, so there are many that will never make the choice to find their community in a church. Pastor Denise Sudbeck of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) Last Frontier is fully aware of this and embraces it. “I am painfully aware that almost anyone I am talking to comes with a history. A history of trauma sometimes, and sometimes outright hostility towards faith. Not everyone is open to doing this” she said, referring to attending church. “Sometimes when I am talking to someone about spirituality it goes past religion, it goes past Christianity. For instance within the greater trans community it is not unusual to find people with some sort of nature religion or they are Wiccan. It's important to take people where they are at.”
This belief aligns perfectly with the statement from the MCC at a national level which says: Founded in 1968, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) has been at the vanguard of civil and human rights movements by addressing issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, economics, climate change, aging, and global human rights. MCC was the first to perform same-gender marriages and has been on the forefront of the struggle towards marriage equality in the USA and other countries worldwide. MCC recognizes a state of need around the world in the areas of human rights and justice including but not limited to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer community. As people of faith, MCC endeavors to build bridges that liberate and unite voices of sacred defiance. MCC leads from the margins and transforms.
For Pastor Sudbeck, this topic comes up often, and she has said multiple times from the pulpit, in person, and on social media, that “people who do drag, are part of the leather community, or anything else are welcome to come just the way you are.” This represents a long standing tradition within the church, and applies also to those who are part of ethically non-monogamous, or polyamorous relationships. She states that “the inclusive nature of God is more than just a string of letters.”
Sudbeck recently received her doctorate in ministry degree. “I am one of a very small number of trans people in the United States that is not only ordained, but also holds a doctorate. All of the other trans clergy that I know, and have run into, with doctorates, are men.” she told me. While she has this knowledge it is not the type of connection she looks to have with people, and speaks of theology saying “I can sit down and write and talk theology with all kind of academics, and I do sometimes. On the other hand, that is not where people live. I think it is really critical for people to open themselves up to the idea that God intends for people to flourish.”
Sudbeck mentions the need for people to flourish more than once in our conversation, talking about God's desire to see his people grow in a healthy and vigorous way. Again mentioning that for many this journey is not about a building or a congregation but about individuals. “I am not trying to get people to come to church so much as to discover what you are searching, what are you missing, what has your life been like, where are you at and what are you feeling?” For her, ministry comes through those conversations and relationships. At 65, Sudbeck is nearing the end of her career, and while money may get tight sometimes, she can wait for MCC Last Frontier to have it's own building, and she can wait while she takes the time to nurture and develop relationships.
The journey that brought Pastor Sudbeck to Alaska, and leading this church is a long and complicated one. From being a Vietnam Era Veteran, to being a “problem solver” for the church. She had a period in her life where addiction and being a secret drinker was only part of the secrets she was hiding. Almost 8 years ago she got into recovery at the same time that she came out of the closet as a transgender woman. For the first time since 1998, she found her way back to the church.
In 2016 after the election she realized that many in the community had anxiety that they was taking over. “People were asking me, whats going to happen to my marriage, or my job. Do we have to move to another country. I was getting those questions all the time. There needs to be an answer to those kind of questions and anxiety, that treats it seriously but doesn't live in it, and that's how I understand the gospel. That's how I understand queer faith essentially.”
When it comes to holy words, she comes from a queer perspective, and finds that the bible backs her up. Speaking of the story of Jesus telling his disciples to look for the man carrying water, a task that was traditionally for women, she tells LGBTQ identified people “If Jesus can relate to someone who is acting in a gender non-conforming way, not only relate to them, but they become part of a larger divine plan, than what's to say that whoever you are, as a sexual or gender non-conforming person, that God is not going to find something really special way for you to interact.” She herself comes under fire, because not everyone is comfortable with a trans woman serving eucharist, but she says she can handle the heat.
The major catalyst for Sudbeck in many aspects of life, was that she was tired of watching people die. She specifically mentions Leelah Alcorn, and the spiritual abuse that led to her suicide. Assigned male at birth, Alcorn came out as transgender at the age of 14. Her parents, affiliated with the Churches of Christ movement, sent her to conversion therapy when she requested to undergo transition treatment. At 17 years old, Alcorn arranged for her suicide note to be posted online several hours after her death. This case brought international media attention, and attention was brought as evidence of the problems faced by LGBTQ+ youth, and specifically transgender individuals. The incident has gone on to be used as an example when laws are made to attempt to ban conversion therapy in the United States.
Incidents like these inspire Pastor Sudbeck to help people understand that they are included in this divine purpose. “It's a radical shift, but the only one I know that makes any sense.” She wants people to at least hear from someone else that you are worthy and lovable just the way you are. You may be excluded from family, but you are not excluded from God.
While MCC Last Frontier does not have a building of it's own, it shares space with Immanuel Presbyterian Church, at 2311 Pembroke St, and Pastor Sudbeck clear about the affection and respect she has for other members of the clergy that have been kind and helpful including Revs. Andy Bartel and Nico Romeijn-Stout of St. John's United Methodist, Rev. Matt Schultz of First Presbyterian Church, Rev. Michael Burke, Rev. Julia Seymour of Lutheran Church of Hope, Rev. Dr. Martin Eldred of Joy Lutheran Church. In fact, the communion set that MCC Last Frontier uses is a gift from Rev. Bartel.
Pastor Sudbeck sums up her mission saying “The goal is for people to connect spiritually wherever they are led to connect. To find a fulfilling relationship that allows them to flourish, right here today. I am not talking about eternal salvation, I am talking about finding it right here today.” For those that are looking for someone to talk to, or to start that relationship she has three words. “I am here.”