News from AllianceQ: April 2020

"We must love!" An interview with Disciples nonbinary transgender minister RJ Robles

Rev. RJ Robles (they/them/ellé) is a Puerto Rican queer and transgender community organizer, healer and Christian minister. RJ is a nonbinary transgender minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They were born and raised in Humboldt Park, Chicago, as a first-generation migrant in the U.S. In 2010, they started working as a peer sexual health educator with Black and Latinx youth. In 2014, they moved to Nashville, TN, when they were granted the Carpenter Scholarship in Religion, Gender and Sexuality at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Their research interests have focused on the intersections of pastoral care and counseling and transgender theology while studying under the leadership of womanist, feminist, and queer theologians. They enjoy continuing to co-create rituals of healing for queer and trans people of color, believing that a different world is possible with revolutionary love, healing and organizing.

Q: Can you say a little about how your experience as a trans person has enhanced your understanding of Christian ministry?

I came out as transgender in 2010. Looking back, it has been a decade full of building community, leaning on my chosen family and deepening my faith journey. For me, just like faith is a spiritual journey, my trans experience is also deeply spiritual. Finding myself at the intersection of being trans and Christian was my dream for so long. My trans journey has taught me how to be bold in my Christian faith.

Being a Christian minister means acknowledging, affirming and reassuring the trans community of God’s prophetic love towards all of humanity. Caring for trans people includes making sure that the whole community of faith honors, respects, celebrates and loves the diversity reflected in creation, including the diverse representations of gender identity among God’s creation.

God is calling us into right relationship with their beloved trans children.

Q: How has being a trans person and a trans person of color been a blessing/challenge to your work in ministry?

Being a trans Latinx person has been a complete blessing to my work in Christian ministry. Although I may still find myself in the margins of the church, my ministry exists and will continue to exist both inside and outside of the church. Being a trans non-binary person of color means that I experience violence due to racism, transphobia and the gender binary.

Sometimes ministry presents as a challenge when these values are present in other people. Ordained ministry calls me to continue to walk alongside, holding people accountable, to agitate and push the comfortable to be uncomfortable, and ultimately challenge all people with this radical message of the abundance of love and healing available to everyone, should they seek to be better versions of themselves. For God calls us out and also calls us in, time and time again.

Q: What do you see as the most important part(s) of the intersection between orientation/identity and race/culture?

As a Brown Puerto Rican, my queerness and transness are also racialized experiences. Through understanding my culture, where my people come from, and who my people are I have a greater sense of my sexuality and gender. My people are tainos and afro-indigenous folks from the island of Borinquen. My people have a long legacy of resisting colonization. As a queer and trans person of color, I stand in complete alignment with my ancestral and divine power. And for this I am eternally grateful to God, Spirit, and my ancestors.

Q: You mentioned having a “love the sinner/hate the sin” church background. Can you tell us a little about your journey to overcome that mindset?

“We must love the sinner but hate the sin.” This was the common notion I grew up hearing from both ordained Christian clergy and Catholic priests. My parents’ faith was heavily shaped by Latinx Catholicism and Puerto Rican Christian evangelicalism. I grew up sometimes attending Spanish Catholic mass and other times going to a small evangelical church in Chicago’s West Side. In both faith communities the topic of sexuality and gender was taboo. I did not fully understand what loving the sinner had to do with hating the sin. But I remember being negatively impacted by this theology as I was attempting to find myself.

I wrestled with my faith growing up because I knew I was different. By the time I went to college and came out as trans, I had outgrown the message of hate and fear that many churches were then preaching. Even though I did not quite have the language, what kept me believing in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit was my fervor and rootedness in a theology of love, first and foremost love for myself and love for my neighbor. Instead of internalizing loving the sinner/hating the sin, what I held onto and what spiritually got me through was simple: We Must Love!

Q: Why do you see the the work of the Alliance as important?

The work of the Alliance is critical in such times as these. It’s crucial to continue to support and walk with our Disciples family in this journey of liberation. As we build the Kin-Dom of God together via joining in God’s work of transforming the Christian Church into a just church, ministries like that of Alliance remain central to responding to this calling. Through education and support of congregations and seminaries, empowering Disciples to be involved in responding to queer and trans injustice, and through our collective sharing of resources we can all sustain the work of having everyone a seat at the table. May we continue to fellowship in deep and meaningful ways with each other. Always working together through the darkness and holding onto the light of the Spirit that bestows in each of us a divine power of unity.

AllianceQ Moderator Robin Knauerhase posed a number of questions to RJ. Robin edited their answers for brevity.

Are you interested in sharing some of your story? Do you know someone with whom we should be in conversation? Email alliance@disciplesallianceq.org.

Read a Trans Day of Visibility Prayer here.

Watch a documentary that gives voice to the witness of transgender people of faith here.