By David-Elijah Nahmod, Special to PQ Monthly
On Feb. 22, Grace Lutheran Church in San Francisco installed Pastor Megan Rohrer as their new pastor. The well attended service, dubbed Beatles Mass (congregants sang praise lyrics to the music of The Beatles), was not only joyously uplifting, it was historic. Pastor Megan identifies as transgender.
Rohrer, who prefers the pronoun they, brings a long history of transgender and homeless advocacy to the table. Three nights a week, they walk the streets of San Francisco as part of Night Ministry, a loose network of clergy from various denominations who offer counseling, prayer, guidance and hands on support to homeless individuals.
As the congregation stood in line to receive Holy Communion from their new pastor for the first time, Megan stood before the altar, holding up the bread and wine for all to see. There were smiles of joy and peace in the faces of all those present.
Now ensconced in their new job, Pastor Megan spoke to PQ about issues that are near and dear to their heart.
PQ: Can you describe to our readers exactly what the Beatles Mass entailed?
Pastor Megan: The worship that we used at the installation was created for an evening worship service at St Aidan’s Episcopal. In the hopes of attracting young people and those new to the church, I created a Lady Gaga Mass. The service gained a lot of attention and I was able to share it at congregations around the the country. However, Lady Gaga’s music is very complicated and much more difficult to sing than what you’d expect from a pop song. Many of the young people knew the tunes, but the older generation had a difficult time. I created the Beatles Mass because the tunes were recognized by both older and younger members and participants often leave the service feeling uplifted.
PQ: Can you share your backstory on coming out as transgender and what led you to ministry?
Pastor Megan: I grew up in South Dakota and went to a Lutheran college where I was out and encouraged to pursue my gifts for ministry. After enduring some hate crimes and religious abuse during the time following the death of Matthew Shepard, I thought it wouldn’t be possible to become an LGBT pastor in the Lutheran church. Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkley encouraged me to continue my studies and I moved to the Bay Area in 2002. In June of that year I began working as the Executive Director of the Welcome Ministry, where I continue to support, feed, and find creative ways to help the homeless and hungry improve their quality of life. With programs at Lutheran congregations around San Francisco we’ve created community gardens that have given away over 5.4 tons of produce. Through partnering with Project Homeless Connect, we’ve given away almost 200 pairs of glasses in the past five months and provided groceries for HIV positive individuals.
PQ: Are there many trans people in ministry?
Pastor Megan: I meet annually with a group of about 150 transgender pastors and faith leaders from diverse faiths at a retreat hosted by the Center For Lesbian and Gay Studies in Berkeley. We talk about how we can show support and learn from each other, and the best practice for sharing our stories, advocating for trans individuals, and our own employment needs. There may be many more than that, but some people choose not to be open about their transgender status after they transition. This is why I use the words openly transgender in my identification.
PQ: It is difficult for them to find accepting congregations?
Pastor Megan: Many transgender pastor faith leaders work in specialized ministry to support vulnerable populations. When it comes to faithfully serving LGBT individuals or the homeless, being transgender is often an asset. Very few openly transgender pastors are able to find work leading a congregation. I believe this will change as society becomes more welcoming and understanding of transgender issues.
PQ: Will you be doing trans outreach at Grace Lutheran?
Pastor Megan: We take the name Grace seriously, so we will be doing outreach to people of all shapes and sizes. The congregation is enthusiastic about welcoming everyone, particularly those of us who have been lied to and told that they’re not good enough to be part of a faith community.
PQ: Can you address some of the hardships that transgenders face in their daily lives?
Pastor Megan: People who live outside of society’s cultural gender norms have experienced violence, arrest, and loss of jobs for centuries. I have personally been yelled at in bathrooms and inappropriately touched by people who think my gender identity means that my private parts are up for grabs. I’ve also provided pastoral support to transgender youth who’ve been kicked out of their homes, set on fire, sexually or physically assaulted, robbed or arrested. Many others live in fear that this violence could come at any moment.
PQ: What’s being done to change this?
Pastor Megan: As transgender issues gain more attention in the media and with LGBTQ church groups who are educating congregations, society is beginning to understand the diversity of experiences transgender people take. Within most faith and Christian denominations, there are groups of trans individuals working to help their branch of faith become aware of the issues that affect transgender people. The Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Department has excellent resources for faith communities and I have worked with them and other trans pastors to create preaching reassures for pastors to use with their congregations.
Lutherans have a group called Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries who have been very helpful for my journey and advocate not only for LGBTQ pastors, but also those in school training to become pastors as they go through the church credentialing process.
PQ: Can you describe how you felt at your installation?
Pastor Megan: My tears of weeping have turned to tears of joy. Many people were surprised that Grace called me because they weren’t at the forefront of gay pride parades or lobbying for LGBTQ folks at the church. They did not call a transgender pastor to make a statement, they called me because they like my sermons, bible study and ideas for growing the congregation. This is the future I want for the church and the world, a vision that sees beyond color and identity and embodies the all encompassing love of God.
Read Pastor Megan’s blog: http://revrohrer.blogspot.com.