Editor’s note: This year the ELCA celebrates 50 years of Lutheran women’s ordination in the United States, 40 years of the ordination of Lutheran women of color and 10 years of Lutheran LGBTQIA+ individuals’ freedom to serve (elca.org/50yearsofordainedwomen). In this series, these leaders share their joys, struggles and gospel hope.
As a teenager, I was passionate about church. I played guitar at mass on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. Then I would sit in the pews afterward for a third mass.
At 18, I wanted to become a Catholic priest. But Mom said that, as her only son, I was supposed to get married, have kids and carry on the family name. So I went to college, graduating in 1982.
In graduate school I discovered how the church I loved was complicit with the subjugation and oppression of Indigenous Americans. At the same time, I had prayed and prayed for God to “fix me” because I tried to be a man but held feelings inside I couldn’t explain. I felt betrayed by my church and my God.
I stopped attending mass and spent the remainder of my 20s wandering Boulder, Colo. In 1989, I ended up in detox—I’d really messed up my life.
I was terrified to walk into worship as Nicole. I was sure people would point and stare. Instead, they were loving and welcoming.
A few years later, after finding work in retail, I met and married a beautiful woman. I achieved my mother’s dreams, but I still needed to convince myself that I was a “real” man. I got a job in law enforcement and did all I could to demonstrate masculinity. I was a good officer and received several promotions. But such success came at the cost of my marriage.
Furthermore, I’d changed. Maybe it was the nature of the job, but it took a lot of energy to pretend daily to be a macho man. When my wife asked for a divorce in 2002, I agreed without hesitation. I moved and started the next phase of my life.
“I felt at peace”
One evening that year I sat in my new home wondering why I had walked away from everything I was supposed to have. I was devastated and mad. “If I come back to church, you better step it up this time,” I yelled at Jesus.
I found a therapist and within a month told her my deepest, darkest secret: I’d always liked wearing women’s clothing. I joined a support group and attended my first transgender conference.
During a conference workshop on gender identity, I heard someone else tell my story—they had never felt comfortable in their own skin. Yes, I thought, I just never fit in. I realized that’s because I’d always been a woman. The weight lifted from my shoulders and, for the first time in my life, I felt at peace. I claimed myself as Nicole.
At the conference I met a new friend and told her of my desire to find a church. I didn’t think the Roman Catholic Church would want me back, not because I was transgender, but because I was divorced. My friend mentioned a welcoming Lutheran congregation in downtown Denver. Initially I resisted it. After a few invitations, I listened to the Spirit and attended a service.
Readying myself for church, I was terrified to walk into worship as Nicole. I was sure people would point and stare. Instead, they were loving and welcoming. I took catechumen classes and fell in love with Lutheran theology. I became Lutheran in October 2003.
Embraced by the church
In July 2008, I was elected as the transgender representative to the board of Lutherans Concerned/North America (now ReconcilingWorks). In 2009, I was a voting member of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly that adopted the human sexuality social statement. I started graduate school in counseling that August while continuing to educate congregations about the full inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in the church.
Sometime in 2012, I started thinking seriously about seminary. But I was already in graduate school and candidacy paperwork was daunting, so I pushed those thoughts aside. I also had the nagging feeling the ELCA wasn’t ready for a transgender Latina pastor.
I had the nagging feeling the ELCA wasn’t ready for a transgender Latina pastor.
Then one morning at worship I watched my dear pastor of many years raise the host. In that moment I knew that I wanted to preside over the eucharist.
I thought there was no way I could pick up my life and go to seminary until my pastor told me of a hybrid online residential program at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. Within a few months, I applied to candidacy and seminary. To my amazement, I was granted entrance to candidacy and accepted at Luther.
Heading to St. Paul for my first residential intensive classes in spring 2014, I worried if my classmates would accept me. On campus, they were courteous and a few asked me questions about my gender identity. I decided to invite them to view a short video about being transgender. Twenty-five people showed up and, afterward, we had an honest conversation about inclusion and acceptance. I still count many of those classmates as dear friends.
On Nov. 23, 2019, in a church filled with family, friends and more than 30 of my colleagues, I was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament. It’s a day forever etched into my memory.
Now, as an ELCA pastor, I proclaim the gospel of love and inclusion of my savior, Jesus Christ. The ELCA has embraced me. As in every relationship, we don’t always see eye to eye, but I know I have a home in this church. Thanks be to God.