“Only one thing is more frightening than speaking our truth, and that is not speaking.”
These are the words of Junia Joplin, lead pastor of Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, Ontario, taken from what might be the most meaningful sermon of her life.
Joplin is a transgender woman whose congregation had believed she was a cisgender man until she came out to them from her virtual pulpit during an online service streamed via Zoom on June 14.
The revelation was a long time coming for Joplin, growing up in a time and place (early ’80s North Carolina) where she lacked the language and knowledge of LGBTQ identities to attach a proper label to her experiences:
Up until very recently, I would have said that I was just a cisgender guy who had this strange compulsion towards femininity, or envy of women, or just would rather be a woman.
Two years ago, she began the coming-out process by telling her wife and closest friends. Her siblings and children came next as the process continued, culminating in a virtual announcement smack in the middle of Pride Month.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting virtual services, that announcement and the message of hope she paired with it has spread far beyond the reach of her little Mississauga congregation. (So much for the short-sighted preachers who agitated against quarantine.)
In her sermon, Joplin directly and forcefully repudiated the narrow-minded traditionalist approach to the LGBTQ community:
I want you to hear me say that God delights in you and feels pure joy for you having discovered your treasured identity. I am sorry for the times you’ve been lied to about who you are in the eyes of God. I’m sorry for the times that you have been told that who you are is sinful or broken… Those words are not true. They are deceitful and evil, and we have already lost too many siblings to that deadly theology.
In particular, I want to proclaim to my transgender siblings that I believe in a God who knows your name, even if that name hasn’t been chosen yet. I believe in a God who calls you a beloved daughter even if your parents insist you’ll always be their son. A God who blesses you and gives you a home even if you’re not welcome in the place you used to call home.
You don’t have to believe that the Christian deity exists to like this version far better than the original-recipe God.
Lorne Park Baptist just finished celebrating its centenary, which added to Joplin’s sense that the time was right: she wanted to start the congregation’s second century with a challenge that was “uniquely twenty-first century.”
And they’ve by and large risen to the occasion, she explained in an interview with CBC’s Metro Morning:
I’ve been getting messages of support and care and love from just all over. Within my congregation pretty much everyone I’ve heard from have been supportive. I’ve been hearing from folks kind of all over… It’s been really overwhelming and touching to hear from so many people.
At the same time, Joplin’s future with Lorne Park Baptist Church remains uncertain. They released a statement saying as much, though they did express a desire to “work towards Christian unity” (whatever that means) and Joplin says she feels encouraged that they used her correct name and pronouns. She describes a sense of peace, saying even if she loses her job now, she knows she’s fulfilled her calling.
But, as reporter Emily VanDerWerff points out, there remains much at stake:
By coming out, she might lose more than her job. She’s trying to become a Canadian citizen, which will be made trickier if she’s suddenly unemployed. Canada’s nationalized health care covers trans care, but she risks losing her hormones and her access to potential surgeries if she has to leave. She is going to lose her marriage, because her wife, though incredibly supportive, is also straight. (They are separated.) She might lose even more than that.
A high cost to pay indeed for the chance to live as her authentic self, just as she described in her sermon about the pearl of great price.
At least one of her colleagues has lent Joplin his full-throated support on the issue. In a Facebook message, youth director John Cullen expressed excitement about how her announcement would impact LGBTQ within and beyond the Lorne Park Baptist community:
We are excited for how this will impact the children and youth in our community. As many of you may know, LGBTQ+ youth have one of the highest rates of suicide due to discrimination, lack of support and fear of the unknown. Yesterday, because of June’s bravery, we were blessed with the ability to combat these statistics — to prove to any child struggling in our congregation and community that they are accepted and loved by Christ just as they are.
Let’s hope that’s the message the church decides to send — not just for Junia’s sake, but for everyone else who’s watching.