The person you were born, that is God’s design. Then, you grow older. From child, to tween, to teen you realize that there are other ways you are more unique than your peers. But imagine growing up in a community where the social expectation for you is so strict, that while no one ever calls you out on looks or behavior, you are expected to tow the line of gender to fulfill your role.
Such was the case with Rose. Yet roses are tough, and roses rise. If you’ve ever had to prune one, then you know. Something else that’s tough? Peter Beeson, the Lutheran minister who rose to Rose’s challenge.
St. Matthew Trinity Church in Hoboken, NJ
Reverend Peter Beeson is the spiritual leader of St. Matthew Trinity Church in Hoboken, NJ, since October 2014. And Rose is within him in all ways — always there for him, always a part of him. Peter was Rose. Peter is the person he was always meant to be, and St. Matthew is even more welcoming with his work.
Lutherans believe that all people are sinners and saints, that we all possess divinity and feet of clay. St. Matthew’s was the German Church and the sacred space was built in 1878 when Hoboken was a picnic spot for the glitterati of that time. While traditionally the egalitarian Lutherans do not treat saints in the same way that Roman Catholics do, many of the churches in the area have a saintly affiliation.
Trinity Church was the Lutheran church that the Norwegian community attended. The two congregations merged in 1969. SMT, as it is familiarly known, is unique in that today this congregation is mostly people in their 30s to 50s with a lot of fluidity. Careers move parishioners in different directions, Today there are very few parishioners who remember the merger that happened so long ago.
Reverend Beeson said one of the oldest Trinity member’s fathers was a master ship builder who carved a beautifully elegant altarpiece on the southern wall of the church. That member would always sit beneath her father’s sculpture, until her passing at 97. She served coffee every day in the soup kitchen until she turned 96. Perhaps that participation in the spiritual community is what kept her young.
Reverend Beeson has many interesting tidbits about the church. During World War I, the congregation held worship services in German. Urban legend holds that the minister at the time was arrested mid-sermon in the mistaken notion that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
Rev. Peter Beeson began his journey within the Church at an early age
Beeson was born and raised in Arizona. The Reverend recalls that people in the community respected one another’s differences and minded their own business. How different from today, when our moods and our foods all show up on social media. Growing up in an evangelical church, there was very little about LGBTQ in the discussion, he says. But it was certainly an environment where coming out was not welcomed. It was there that his journey began.
When did you come to realize your body and your spirit were not entirely matched?
Peter Beeson: This feels like a journey of integrity, to have the way that I’m read by society match who I am. Growing up, I frequently heard snide comments from the side that I had to look like what my community expected. I looked very traditional with long hair. Later, in my teens I came out as gay. I ultimately had to leave the church. In early 20s, as I was wrestling with my sexuality and my faith, there were two movies (with trans characters) that came out at that time, Boys Don’t Cry, and Southern Comfort — where both trans people who are the main characters die, and it made me consider I didn’t want to express that way. I identified as queer. But things cycle back, and I started coming out to friends and family as trans. Last summer, I came out to the congregation when we were doing a series called Stories of Resurrection. For me it’s always been framed as moving into a place of greater integrity.
One of the beautiful things about that is that SMT has a long history of running programs for people who are not always accepted. Reconciling in Christ is how the Lutherans refer to being open to LGBTQ people. While my transition has raised some eyebrows, yet it has also opened up some space for people to share more about their own individual journeys. It has been really nice to see that occur.
How has your congregation been accommodating your transition to your authentic self?
PB: It’s an interesting learning curve. We changed our branding at SMT to “where tradition and inclusivity meet.” It’s very true — we have this very beautiful traditional space and we have homeless people sitting next to Wall Street bankers. It’s been a learning curve. We invited a diversity trainer to discuss how we all have different identities. Especially, she noted how women of color who are in transition have a greater issue than ours. Sometimes people get the wrong pronoun and the wrong name. But it’s fine.
My renaming ceremony was held here, and was delightful. A small group was formed in the congregation to determine how to acknowledge the discussion around my transition. It morphed and flowed. We wanted to do it as a quiet thing. Then, the more we spoke about it, it became more important. With Trump’s election and the rise in hate crimes against religious communities and LGBTQ people it is important to discuss publicly how some churches choose to stand up against hate and intolerance. Wanting to take a stand, we reached out to our synod bishop. He was supportive and agreed to come here to perform the renaming ceremony during our regular worship. There’s a great article in the May 5, 2018, Wall Street Journal about how some churches are taking a more bold stand against anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ, and other social issues. Our faith leads us to believe that all are created in God’s image, and all are welcome in our community.
What is one of the most surprising outcomes resulting from your transition?
PB: The number of people who have reached out to me for support or connection to resources has been stunning. The negative push back has been minimal. I was not expecting the requests for advice from trans seminarians to ministers who think one of the children in their parish might be trans. It’s a good reminder that representation matters.
What is your message for those who find themselves in a similar position?
PB: That everyone is created beautifully in God’s image. Particularly for people who are struggling, you are loved by God. There are communities who will embrace each of them.
When did you first get the call to serve?
PB: When I was six or seven, my parents were part of a very conservative church. They had friends who were missionaries who would come and talk about their work. On their version of shore leave, when they would come back and visit, they would stay with us for a week. Back then, in that church, women could only be Sunday school teachers or missionaries. That has not changed for that church.
How can the practice of religion once again align with spirituality? So many LGBTQ people have been hurt by their Church (or Temple or Synagogue) that they eschew all places of worship.
PB: I think the issue of religious trauma is real. One of the fascinating things I encounter here is that it is not just among LGBTQ people. With SMT being largely Gen X and Millennial, many parishioners talk about how when they mention their church, many of their colleagues wonder what’s wrong with them. Christianity is at a major tipping point in the US and Western Europe. What was is becoming no longer. It will be interesting to see what emerges from that. We have no way of knowing where it will end up. I give Pope Francis credit for being compassionate. People can work to make change on an individual level, while working for the change in the institution. When someone is different from you — LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim — and we relate to them and like them, we wrestle with the messaging we’ve received about who “they” are. That is work I believe we all can do.