Jesus said a lot of things about a lot of issues. But he never mentioned homosexuality, abortion, or assisted dying. Which must come as rather a shock to non-Christians when they read what Christian conservatives discuss so much of the time. The Prince of Peace does, however, refer constantly to justice, equality, and the need to avoid materialism and religious pedantry — and those ideas, oddly enough, are seldom, if ever, mentioned by the loudest of church militants.
It’s something that must have occurred to Junia “June” Joplin when she was terminated last week as lead pastor with Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga: 111 members of the congregation voted on her fate; 52 per cent favoured her dismissal. The reason? She came out as a transgender woman, which is yet another issue that Jesus the Christ says not a word about.
The U.S.-born and -educated Joplin has handled all of this with an extraordinary degree of grace and charity, in spite of the devastating effect it has had on her career, well-being, and ability to provide for herself and her family. “It’s very difficult of course,” she says. “There are very few places I could call home at this point, as a minister. It’s been my primary living for most of my career, and now it’s gone. But I can’t and won’t run away from it, because LGBTQ youth need to hear that God loves them, God loves them as they are, and God knows you by name. That is so, so important.”
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The church’s denomination is Convention Baptist, and the polity or organization of Baptist churches allows for a great deal of autonomy. Individual churches have, to a large extent, the right to decide their own path. In 2014, when Joplin was accepted as lead pastor, the vote was 96-4 in her favour. She’s been very popular since then, and, even though she knew her transition would come as shock to some — but far from all — of the congregants, she was confident that she had enough support to continue. It seems, however, that those opposed to a trans-woman minister organized and campaigned, even having meetings outside the congregation, and the vote went narrowly against her.
“I know that people looking in from outside were surprised at how much support I had,” she explains, “but I was actually quite surprised that we lost. I think a lot of the leadership was surprised at the outcome as well — they didn’t expect it. I’d heard a lot from people at the church, 50 or 60, all affirming and supportive. That means that the people who were against simply didn’t speak to me or want to discuss anything.”
The church itself has closed most of its social-media outlets but did state that it had “journeyed for the past month through a process of attempting to discern God’s will resulting from June’s announcement of June 14, 2020 that she is a transgender woman. After a month of prayerful discernment and discussions between June and the congregation, it was determined, for theological reasons, that it is not in God’s will that June remain as our pastor.”
Those theological reasons, however, seem to be incredibly thin and even undetectable. “They spent five weeks debating about me without me being able to give any input,” says Joplin. “I had no way of knowing who my accusers were, who my opponents were. I still don’t. But it doesn’t change anything about my decision — I need to be visible, because others walking a similar path have been denied that visibility.”
It’s not certain how many trans clergy work in North America, but the estimate is around 300 for all of the various denominations, and it’s not an issue that will somehow disappear simply because of a vote. The level of violence and abuse experienced by trans people is extraordinary, and the church should be at the forefront of combatting that discrimination and suffering. “So many churches, including mine, print in their bulletins each week that everybody is welcome,” she says. Then pauses. “But is that really true?”
There is the possibility of legal consequences, but it’s to her enormous credit that Joplin seems far more concerned with the future of the church and of trans people within it than with any actions against what could well be an unjustified dismissal. “That may be. I’m not sure,” she says. “But I do know that the fog of denial, the pain of living as someone I wasn’t supposed to be, is gone and that even a bad day as I am is better than a good day as I was. I wish the people who voted against me could realize that.”
As to what happens now, Joplin is taking time to consider her options, to listen to the support and affirmation as well as to the criticism, and to pray about what the next and best step should be. She’s not the first Christian witness to suffer for truth, of course. That doesn’t make it any easier, but it does give it purpose and meaning. I’ve a feeling that we’ll hear more from Pastor Joplin. I certainly hope so. It’s a conversation long overdue.