I was sipping coffee in front of a cafe in downtown Washington when three people walked up and asked, “Can we pray for you?”
I asked them why they wanted to pray for me. They said they felt called by God to walk around the streets of D.C. and let God’s voice tell them who might be “broken.”
Broken. As a Christian, I’m neither opposed to prayer nor to people praying specifically for me, at least not when it’s done in good faith. But I’m also a transgender woman, and I sure as hell caught the gist of why these folks happened upon me to offer prayer.
My introduction to Christianity was in evangelical churches. For years, I navigated conservative religious spaces where I encountered bigotry toward LGBTQ people and women as often as I found warmhearted people eager to serve others. There was more than a little racism, too. I’ve heard the statement “I’ll pray for you” said with love, and I’ve heard it said full of judgment and scorn. I know the difference, and the folks who confronted me outside the cafe were making their judgment clear.
I wanted them to feel what it’s like to have someone approach in “love” but instead inflict judgment, pain, and discomfort.
I could have ignored them, but I’ve had it up to here with some evangelicals giving a bad name to their community by insisting on defining my humanity for me. They saw a transgender person and assumed I was broken because of my gender identity. It angered me that the whole of my being could be reduced to their flawed understanding of LGBTQ people, a view that could easily be revised if only they took the time to get to know me. So I would be damned if I was going to let them interrupt my Sunday afternoon coffee when I certainly wasn’t bothering them.
So I asked their spokeswoman if she understood how it might look to be searching for “broken” people to pray for and to then pick out a random transgender person on the street. They looked more than taken aback.
Then, I asked them what the Book of Matthew says about prayer. Their eyes went wide. The guy on the right started nervously stammering. The other two were just as flummoxed by the idea that the “broken” transgender person was asking about a common verse on prayer in Matthew.
I reached for Matthew 18:20 because of its strong presence in the evangelical community and its common misapplication by members. In short, it reads, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.”
Those up on their biblical knowledge might wonder why I didn’t turn to the scathing verses that call out hypocrites who are performative in their Christianity, telling them to pray in private rather than out on the streets so that they might be seen by others. It’s a good one, but it’s unsurprisingly ignored in evangelical circles. They know it’s there, but it’s inconvenient.
The verse I selected instead hits hard because it’s so commonly heard before a group prayer in evangelical churches. There, it tends to be inaccurately interpreted as a numbers game. They think of it as a call to bring more people into the church. In reality, it’s a verse on accountability before God and about how God may work that accountability through human beings.
There, on that day, I sought to bring accountability.
These aren’t issues I take lightly, and their passive-aggressive condescension was anything but harmless. So this wasn’t the time for me to be polite. Not in a moment when the Donald Trump-Mike Pence White House is attempting to ban transgender people from the military, and transgender students with stories of discrimination are turned away by the Department of Education. Not in a year when Trump and Pence are seeking to implement a new Health and Human Services Department regulation that would permit health care workers to deny potentially lifesaving treatment to LGBTQ people. Not when eight transgender people have been killed in the United States so far in 2018 and 28 in 2017 — the most ever annually.
Not now. I wasn’t going to be silent.
Instead, I spoke. “You know how Matthew says that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, there He is with us?” They stared at me blankly. At last, one of them spoke up: “Yes, that’s right.”
“So, let’s pray.” I said to one of them, “You start us off.” And she did, going through the motions quickly so the three of them could get as far as they could from this awkward situation.
Then I began to pray. “Lord Jesus, thank you for the benefit of these friends.”
I began by being wholly honest with God about how I hoped She would bless my new friends, encouraging them to affirm and be inclusive of others. I was hopeful that their community would honor all as God made them and value the strength of diversity.
I mentioned the natural beauty of the LGBTQ community and thanked God again for making us as we are, throwing in a genuine wish that their trip back home would be a safe one. Then I wrapped the prayer up in the usual evangelical phraseology — “no weapons shall be formed against them,” “put God on their hearts” — to let them know that I was just as familiar with their community’s vernacular as they were.
Then I finished, having returned their “let us pray for you” to them tenfold. Then they murmured their thank yous and scuttled the hell away.
I don’t know whether my words made it through, but I hope those people now have a sense of what it feels like to have a stranger impose self-righteous venom on them.
I also hope that they’ll realize how much actions such as these diminish the power of prayer and enable so much harm to LGBTQ people. A prayer that one might change their sexuality or gender identity is egregious encouragement to those who would discriminate against LGBTQ people in our laws and in our communities. My prayer’s sharp edge was intended to make them aware of their own. These people did not want to know more about me. They wanted to talk at me and pray at me. And I’m confident that’s not how Jesus would go about it.
There are many folks in the evangelical community who love and affirm their LGBTQ family, friends, and fellow human beings. It’s unfortunate that others in the community still need to be told a simple truth: They are not doing the Lord’s work by politicizing prayer at the expense of others or by dumping their misplaced condescension on strangers they believe to be broken. Prayer should be a loving act, not a weapon of marginalization.
This story originally appeared in full on The Lily, a subsidiary of The Washington Post. It is reprinted here with permission.