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When you think of places transgender people find community, church might not be the first place that comes to mind.
But churches in Las Vegas are, in fact, welcoming trans people.
They're supporting them in their transitions, and even inspiring some to join the clergy.
Jamie Lee Spraque-Ballou heads one of those churches. She is a transgender woman who is the lead pastor of Mary Magdalene Friends, which belongs to the United Church of Christ.
Spraque-Ballou said she struggled with gender identity from a young age.
“I felt like I was trapped in the wrong body,” she said.
She grew up in the Catholic Church and felt at home at the altar when she served in her home parish. She felt a call to the ministry, but knew becoming a Catholic priest was not right for her because she wasn't living true to herself.
Now, as a trans woman and a Christian, she feels she is true to herself and true to God.
“I see myself as a true authentic Christian," she said. "I’m not hiding anything anymore.”
But it was not easy for her and her husband to find a church that felt welcoming. Eventually, after looking through the Yellow Page listings of gay-friendly businesses and groups, they found the Metropolitan Community Church.
“It was a home for us to start getting back into our spirituality because many churches won’t accept us for who we are,” she said.
Jeremy Wallace had a similar experience. He is a transgender man who is a seminary student and attends Northwest Community Church.
“I found it difficult to find a home,” he said.
At first, he decided to go to a very large church so he could blend in and no one would question him. He said that approach worked for a while, but eventually it brought up more questions.
“Who am I hiding from? I’m hiding from myself and who I am as a person. I’m not owning that. I’m not authentic. And I’m not embracing who God knows I am,” he said.
Eventually, he found a support system at Northwest Community Church.
Both Spraque-Ballou and Wallace said they could only think of a few churches in Southern Nevada that welcome transgender people.
“I think the fact that we both looked at each other here and we stumbled to answer that speaks volumes," Wallace said. "That there are so many churches in this valley of all denominations that we have trouble naming even a handful and I think that’s what the core of the problem is.”
For years, maybe even centuries, people have used passages in the Bible against the LGBTQ community. Spraque-Ballou said the passages often used are taken out of context and can be used in a very hurtful way.
“When they take those scriptures out context to harm somebody, they are really hurting people," she said. "That’s why people turn away from religion. That’s why a lot of LGBTQ people will walk away from churches and they’ll walk away harmed.”
Wallace understands the harm that some organized religions have done to some members of the LGBTQ community. Both Spraque-Ballou and Wallace said they felt pushback from some members of the LGBTQ community when they announced their religious affiliation.
“Not everybody is accepting of that because they feel like you’re going to go out and judge them, and that’s not what this is about,” Spraque-Ballou said.
She said she is not trying to convert anyone to her own faith, but wants to support people's individual spiritual journies.
Wallace agrees. He sees his calling as helping others find their own connection to something greater than themselves.
With that in mind, neither of them find it useful to argue with people who use the Bible as a weapon against transgender people.
“I’m really in a place where I no longer want to argue about this. I know what my faith is. I’m doing my own due diligence," Wallace said.
Spraque-Ballou believes Christians should come together and have open conversations about the Bible.
“We have opened up some other churches that even the pastors changed their minds because they sat and listened to us,” she said.
Jamie Lee Spraque-Ballou, lead pastor, Mary Magdalene Friends; Jeremy Wallace, seminary student, Northwest Community Church
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