A little over three years ago, I heard a story from a woman working at a conservative leaning Christian University about the things she did to cope with students in her class who challenged her authority. She was teaching a class that was mandatory for all students in a specific program, which meant that she always had students in her classroom who didn’t want to be there.
The educators in the room will know this can pose some challenges in any classroom. But within the context of an Evangelical Christian University, this posed a unique set of challenges. Instead of students feeling bored or disengaged, she dealt with a small (but vocal) minority of dissenters who felt a sense of deep conviction that they should not be attending a class taught by a woman. Being forced to not only consider the wisdom but also “submit to the authority” of someone they did not even believe should be speaking in church, meant that a number of her students would raise their hands in class only to ask questions simply meant to poke holes in lessons taught by their teacher, or even worse- to openly challenge an accomplished and well educated woman on why she felt she could have a job that she had been performing successfully since before some of them were born.
Unsurprisingly, this led to a situation where she found it quite difficult to call on students without starting the dialogue out of a place of anger and fear. When looking for a way to address this she came up with an idea. Before calling on any student in her class (especially those who had challenged her in the past) she would say in her head “The image of God in me, greets the image of God in you”. She explained that this practice helped remind her to make sure that when she started difficult conversations with frustrating students, the first thing she saw when looking at them was not an adversary, but someone who was beloved in all the same ways she was, was created by the same God she was… and who had a lot they could learn from her experience of who God was.
At the time that I heard this story I was at the very beginning of my journey to coming out as transgender. This means that my gender does not match the gender I was assigned at birth.
I had already come out as a person who was attracted to women, and was working on affirming that part of my identity in a real way. Affirming it as a part of who I am, and not something to struggle with or something that I had chosen from a place of brokenness and sin.
But I was doing so in a really difficult context. I was living as a part of a missional Christian community and working in a coffee shop blocks from the homes of nearly everyone I knew from this community.
Every day I was having conversations with people who felt that I shouldn’t be able to love who I loved or express my gender in a way that felt comforting and honoring to me. Much like in the story about the professor, I couldn’t just choose not to engage. Because these were the people who shared a kitchen and a bathroom with me. Who I grocery shopped with. Who I worked with, and cared for a neighborhood with. And often, were my customers- who I was obligated to engage with because if I didn’t, I feared losing my job.
So I adopted (or stole) this practice. When I was preparing myself to walk through the doors of my home where my friends no longer wanted to hear about my life, sell coffee to a pastor who had preached a pointed sermon about homosexuality the day before, or walk into yet another prayer meeting directed solely at my “same sex attraction” or “identity issues” I took a deep breath and said silently to myself “the image of God in me greets the image of God in you” before I ever said a word to the person.
For a long time I have found this practice helpful. . It has helped me to come into difficult conversations from a place of humility, and it has helped me to remember that even the people who have hurt me the most are worthy of love. It’s something that I used just last month when having coffee with a conservative theology student who I suspected may not be coming to the table from the same loving framework I’ve grown used to experiencing here at St. Brigid’s.
But this is a practice I have recently realized has been helpful to me in ways I never thought imaginable.
“The image of God in me greets the image of God in you” is a statement that starts with an acknowledgement of something that so many people in the past four years have told me could not be true. The image of God is in me.
Not only did I come to the table with a reminder of this shared connection, I was coming to the table, or the prayer room, or the coffee shop drive-thru window with a reminder that I am an image bearer just as much as the people who were telling me I wasn’t. Without even realizing it, I was reminding myself every day- often more than once a day- that I, a trans man with a soft spot for eyeliner and nail polish, am exactly the person who God created me to be. And that as I live into being this person, God is rejoicing in my becoming more myself.
Over the last three years, it has gone from being something I tell myself to remind me that God still loved me despite my queerness, to a phrase that celebrates a God who loves me for my queerness, and for the ways this part of who I am invites people (including myself), into loving a much wider group of their siblings in Christ.
This summer while waiting in line for ice cream I witnessed a young person about the age of twelve weeping with joy because their parent gave them money to purchase their first “pronoun pin” (a pin indicating what pronouns you use, often worn by trans folks who often have the experience of people using the wrong pronoun for them), and I found myself weeping with them. Because in that moment I knew God was rejoicing with them in the same way God rejoices with me. And I loved them. Without even knowing them. Simply because I know in my heart that God loves them too.