A Baptist church that meets on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, plans to ordain a transgender woman to the gospel ministry this Sunday.
Erica Saunders, a 2019 master-of-divinity candidate at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, will become a reverend in a worship service scheduled at 4 p.m. on March 24 in Wait Chapel on the university campus.
Saunders, 24, will be one of the first openly trans individuals to be ordained by a Baptist church in the United States. Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., a congregation now led by married lesbian co-pastors, ordained Allyson Robinson, a transgender woman, to the gospel ministry in 2014.
Saunders, a ministry intern at Wake Forest Baptist Church who began her transition during her first year of seminary, introduces herself on social media as “probably the only bi, trans, Baptist preacher lady you know.”
“Trans folks exist,” Saunders posted this week on Twitter. “God created us just the way we are, and God calls us good. Unfortunately, being trans means I’m not welcome in most churches as a visitor, let alone a leader. But we are Christians. We are called.”
Saunders said she had to discern a long time whether she wanted to come out publicly in her career. “I hope that by sharing my story, I can show my trans siblings that God loves us because of who we are, not in spite of it,” she tweeted.
Wake Forest Baptist Church is an independent congregation not affiliated with Wake Forest University, but it joined the historically Baptist school in a relocation to Winston-Salem in 1956. The original campus in Wake Forest, North Carolina, became home to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of six seminaries owned by the Southern Baptist Convention.
The relationship was tested in 1997, when a same-sex couple in the church wanted to have a union ceremony in Wait Chapel and the university initially said no. The administration ultimately agreed to let the ceremony be held on campus, deferring to the church’s autonomy. The controversy made national headlines and was subject of A Union in Wait, the first documentary film about same sex marriage to air on national television released in 2001.
Today gender identity and expression are protected by the university’s non-discrimination policy. A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ) Center opened in 2011. Laverne Cox, a transgender actress best known for her role in the Netflix television series Orange Is the New Black, spoke in Wait Chapel in 2015.
Lia Scholl, pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church, said the student’s sexuality has not been an issue this time around.
“Erica is a student at Wake Divinity and has the support of the office of diversity and the LGBTQ center,” Scholl said in an e-mail. “My how things have changed!”
Originally part of the Southern Baptist Convention, Wake Forest Baptist Church got kicked out of the Pilot Mountain Baptist Association and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in 1998. The church voluntarily left the SBC and today affiliates with the Alliance of Baptists, Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.