Alex McNeill is the first openly transgender Presbyterian ministry candidate in the Presbytery of Western North Carolina. His driving passion is working for queer and transgender inclusion in sacred spaces. He currently serves as the lead trainer at the Institute for Welcoming Resources and the communications and development director at Equality Maryland. His journey towards ordination in the PCUSA is featured in the forthcoming documentary, Out of Order. He lives in Maryland with his partner and three dogs.
How has your personal journey to being an openly transgender Christian strengthened or challenged your faith?
My faith is inextricably linked with my journeys around my sexuality and gender identity. The day I came out to myself at 17 was the day I also knew I would answer God’s call to seminary. At the time, the ordination of LGBT individuals was still illegal in the Presbyterian Church, so accepting the call both to be open about my queer sexuality and my call to seminary meant challenging the denomination that raised me. Nothing less than a complete trust and faith in God’s unyielding love for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people would have allowed me to move forward with a willingness to put my life as a public witness to this truth. My faith was shaped around God’s belief in the possibilities of the outcast, the willingness to turn over corrupt systems and make something new, the foundation that all of us were knit together in our mother’s wombs, and that though we will all fall short, there is a grace which sustains and saves us.
What is one of the defining moments in your life as a Christian?
It was my first annual review as an inquirer for ministry. I began the process a year prior before starting seminary. In my first essays to the committee, which would examine my initial calling to ministry, I came out as a lesbian and discussed how my sexual orientation was foundational to how I understood the Bible. (Several years later I would come out to my CPM as transgender, but that’s a story for another day.) Fortunately, my Committee for the Preparation for Ministry approved me as an inquirer without much objection to the assertions I’d made in my initial essays.
However now we were at our second meeting together, and things weren’t going as smoothly as our first encounter. A minister who had not been at my first meeting was present and vocally objecting not just to my sense of call but that LGBT people were fit to be ministers or congregants in the PCUSA. I was fresh from my first year of seminary and full of hope and excitement about the path to ministry that lay ahead.
Though I was keenly aware of my denomination’s policies against LGBT ordination and felt called to be very open about my sexuality as it impacted my theology and ministry, I was not prepared for such an attack on my gifts and personhood. We had been having a rigorous debate and tense conversation for over an hour about the Bible and LGBT folk, why I was attempting this ordination process, and whether or not the denomination would ever change. As I answered each question, I kept up a silent string of prayers under my breath that God be with me and that the Spirit animate my words so the folks on my committee could hear me. Then the minister who vehemently argued that LGBT people were not welcome in his or any church said loudly, “If you were my daughter I would pray for you to change.” In the silence between his assertion and my reply, I felt the weight of the eyes of everyone in the committee watching me. I knew my reply would be the thing this committee remembered about me long after the debate about Scripture waned and the church moved towards acceptance of LGBT people. Somehow, the entire fight for LGBT inclusion in the denomination felt distilled down to those few seconds before I responded. It was only due to the work of the Holy Spirit that I was able to put aside my arguments against the meaning of his point, walk in the grace and love which God calls us to have towards our neighbor, and say, “I’m not your daughter, but I’ll pray for you too.” At once the entire room let out its breath, and the tone of our conversation changed. We didn’t debate after that, but rather prayed together, and I was allowed to continue as an inquirer for another year.
I have kept that moment close to my heart in the seven years since. It taught me the power of letting go of the urge to fight with words and move forward in love, and most of all, it reminded me that when words fail, the Holy Spirit is there.
Do you have a story of a person who embodies Christ’s teachings?
My grandparents are perhaps the two people I try to emulate every day for the ways in which they lived out their faith. Both deep and committed Presbyterians from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, their faith led my grandfather to stand up for civil rights in the early 1960s and my grandmother to devote much of her time and energy to the community ministries of the church. Together, they form the image of what Christ’s teachings were all about: challenging the system when it is broken and working within your community to care for those who are struggling.
In your mind, what are the Biblical foundations for LGBT inclusion in the church?
To me, the Bible is rich with stories of inclusion of all kinds of outsiders and welcome for those thought to be lost. The greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. How can we love our neighbor if we first draw up a wall separating neighbors from the kingdom of God?
What would you say to those Christians who have a different view on inclusion?
Tell me about a time you experienced God. Tell me about your favorite passage of Scripture. I want to hear what moves you about your faith, and I’ll tell you about what moves me about mine. I want to have conversations about where we experience God. This is where I begin.
What can we do to foster dialogue and build bridges with people with different views on inclusion?
Tell our stories. In the Bible, Jesus didn’t just tell his followers to include Samaritans; he told a story about a particularly good one and about a woman at a well. He illustrated a time Samaritans were their best selves, and a time when one of them who had lived a rough life was still worthy of conversation and inclusion in his ministry. Debating Scripture doesn’t change hearts and minds. God works in and through the power of stories to allow compassion and love to creep in to our hearts.