When June Joplin preached a sermon June 14 about the Pearl of Great Price, she became the modern-day illustration of Jesus’ parable on finding buried treasure. She decided to tell her Canadian Baptist congregation the truth about herself: She is a woman.
Before that moment, members of Lorne Park Baptist Church in suburban Toronto knew their pastor of six years as a male. Only a handful of people knew what was coming at the end of her livestreamed sermon from Matthew 13.
Recounting her own calling to pastoral ministry as an 11-year-old boy, Joplin explained that she had followed only part of God’s calling on her life. “Friends, with the divine joy of one finally getting her hands on a most precious pearl, I want you to hear me when I tell you I’m not just supposed to be a pastor, I’m supposed to be a woman.”
She continued: “Hi, friends. Hi, family. My name is Junia. You can call me June. I am a transgender woman, and my pronouns are she and her.”
Due to the restrictions of COVID-19, this all played out via livestream on the Internet rather than in the isolation of a private church service. And that’s just the way she wanted it.
In a subsequent interview, she explained her rationale: “With the onset of COVID and Internet church, I came to realize I had the opportunity in front of the whole world to look my congregation in the eye and say this is who I am.”
That’s important because she hopes even one transgender child might see this sermon and choose to live into their true identity. “This was an opportunity to preach a sermon to 11-year-old June and say things I wish I had heard a pastor say when I was that age. … If I could get through to one kid or one parent who can’t seem to reconcile their faith with their identity, it wouldn’t have mattered if I never preached another sermon in my life.”
Preaching this kind of sermon was a risky move, she admitted. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know I might still lose my job. Or I might keep my job but lose so many people that we can’t make budget. Or this might work out and we might make history.”
She knows other pastors who were silenced after coming out and never given a chance to tell their stories. She also knew she could keep her news secret by resigning and disappearing, “but that didn’t feel right.”
Whatever the outcome, she knows her witness is necessary because of the dire statistics about suicide and self-harm among transgender children and youth. “The more religious your family is, the more likely (transgender) youth are to have suicidal ideation. Our churches are killing people. In the midst of that darkness, if I could light a candle and one person saw it, it would be worthwhile.”
Also, she hopes members of other churches will put themselves in the place of her church members and leadership, because many congregations that say they welcome all people haven’t been put to the test to prove it. “If this could become a story that people heard, maybe it could become a case study,” she said. “I want churches to think, ‘What if somebody on our staff came out?’”
Speaking three days after the sermon, Joplin still didn’t know whether her church will embrace her or reject her, but the early indications through private messages are positive.
“So far the only reactions have been positive,” she said. “I’ve received hundreds of messages from all over the world.” These, like many messages from church members, all been “supportive and positive.” She especially loves the ones addressed to “Pastor June.”
She acknowledges that her church’s executive council has received some negative messages and that “not everybody thinks this is awesome.”
Immediately after the sermon, Joplin hit “send” on separate emails to church leadership, staff and the congregation at large. She assured all of her commitment and love, and she explained why she had come out in this way.
She purposely had not told even staff members about her identity. “I didn’t want to create different levels of understanding in the church, where some people were let in and some were not,” she said. “And I didn’t want the leadership to be able to say she was planning this and other people were her accomplices. Until you come out of the closet, everybody you tell you’re just inviting into the closet with you.”
Since Sunday, the church’s executive committee sent a letter to the congregation to say they, too, were surprised by the sermon and would be determining how to respond. Most important to Joplin, however, was that the letter from church leaders used her correct pronouns and names. She saw that as a positive sign.
Lorne Park, which is affiliated with the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, counts about 300 people in its regular sphere of influence and before the COVID shutdown averaged about 130 in Sunday attendance. The church recently celebrated its 100th anniversary and already is affirming of women as pastors. The church’s first treasurer was a woman.
John Cullen, youth and young adults director at the church, took to Facebook Monday to declare he and his wife are supportive of the news they had just learned.
“Yesterday, the senior pastor at our church made the incredibly brave decision to come out and let our congregation know she will now be living as her true self. … We applaud her courageous decision to speak authentically Sunday morning and look forward to a future where June can live fully into who God made her to be.”
He then added this echo of Joplin’s own hope: “Specifically, we are excited for how this will impact the children and youth in our community. As many of you may know, LGBTQ+ youth have one of the highest rates of suicide due to discrimination, lack of support and fear of the unknown. Yesterday, because of June’s bravery, we were blessed with the ability to combat these statistics — to prove to any child struggling in our congregation and community that they are accepted and loved by Christ just as they are.”
That was the theme of the final section of Joplin’s sermon. “I want to proclaim to my transgender siblings that I believe in a God who knows your name, even if that name hasn’t been chosen yet,” she preached. “I believe in a God who calls you a beloved daughter even if your parents insist you’ll always be their son. A God who blesses you and gives you a home even if you’re not welcome in the place you used to call home. A God whose relentless creativity invites you to become who you were created to be, even if you have to risk everything to do it.”
The journey to this sermon began in the heart of a 6-year-old child, raised in western North Carolina, who knew it was not safe to tell anyone that the person they saw as a boy ought to be a girl. She explained: “If you had asked me at 11, ‘What are your two deepest wishes?’ I would have said, ‘I want to be a pastor,’ and if you really pressed me I would have added, ‘And I want to be a woman.’ I didn’t know that meant I was transgender; I just thought I was weird.”
By age 11, this fundamentalist Christian church invited young Joplin to preach. “I felt a sense of calling that day,” she recalled. “And I probably felt the same kind of thing with my gender identity, but I said no to that. Now there is something symbolic about bringing those two things together in a sermon. There’s something ceremonial and poetic about it.”