|Enzi Tanner will travel to 15 Christian colleges this fall to share his story and encourage LGBT understanding. Katie Higgins photo.|
Enzi Tanner arrived at Spirit of the Lakes UCC in Minneapolis one Sunday morning and quickly found refuge in a back row of the church. He had only recently begun to explore his sexual identity as the transgendered man, Enzi, and not the lesbian, Zakiya.
"I try to find the visitors before every service," said Spirit of the Lakes pastor, the Rev. James Pennington. "I went up to her and I could sense a lot of anger and hurt when we first met."
Some of that anger was the result of recent rejection. The family who Zakiya had travelled with on a short-term mission to Africa was willing to let her stay with them, but only as long as she continued to participate in the "gay recovery" group, Exodus International. Zakiya had tried to change. She went to her high school pastor and sought help for her feelings of attraction to other women. The pastor provided counseling and directed her to Exodus' materials. While attending a Baptist college, she attended an Exodus support group and eventually found her way to the "Love Won Out" conference sponsored by Focus on the Family. "That is when I realized this is ridiculous," said Tanner. "I believe that if I had kept doing it I would have committed suicide because there is a lot of self hatred involved in what they were saying.
"One particular meeting I just stood up and told them I wasn't coming back. I explained to them that it wasn't working," said Tanner. "Shortly after that, my pastor explained to me that if I didn't stay in Exodus I would have to leave the church. Leaving the church meant leaving the mission I was called to — I was supposed to be serving in Africa for two years. It meant leaving everything altogether."
Pennington realized Enzi's need for a place to belong. At the same time, he understood how Spirit of the Lakes needed Enzi. "It is a great gift to push communities of faith to be welcome to people who are in this type of transition — to walk spiritually, emotionally and physically with someone going through the transformation from female to male."
Enzi found more than a spiritual home at Spirit of the Lakes — one of the congregation's families offered him a place to live after hearing of his eviction. Now, nearly a year into his involvement at Spirit of the Lakes, Enzi is about to embark on the Soulforce Equality Ride 2008 which visits colleges with policies that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) students, helping promote tolerance and understanding.
A friend told Enzi about the Equality Ride earlier in the year and he sent in his application as soon as registration opened up. "There was a lot of soul searching," said Tanner of preparing the essay portion of the application. "I had to look back and reread all the Bible verses that had been used to hurt me. There was a lot of studying and preparation so I could be ready to go to the schools and speak on the issues."
Enzi was accepted as part of the 17-member team that will visit 15 Christian colleges throughout the American South this fall. A Bible "boot camp" and orientation was held for riders in Minneapolis this past summer. "We looked at what [the Bible] says and doesn't say, even more so how to look at it in its cultural context," said Tanner of the training. "There was also a lot of diversity training and understanding the different aspects of how to tell your story. Story is a lot of how we begin our dialog."
And Enzi has been busy telling his story. He has become an integral part of Spirit of the Lakes' faith community, sharing concerns for young people with gender/sexual identity questions, being active in racial justice ministries and participation in worship. "Enzi has brought some amazing poetry to the life of our church. He has composed poetry around the lectionary texts and has really helped us to grow and become a more progressive voice in our community," said Pennington.
Tanner is looking forward to expressing the need for colleges to protect vulnerable students. "On a lot of these campuses the policies make students afraid. When there are policies that discriminate against or threaten to expel LGBT students, it becomes unsafe for them. These are faith based institutions — it is really important to speak on shared values. My view of religion has changed over time, but there are still things we share that can bring us together."
"The Equality Ride is a great opportunity for Enzi to define who he is, to continue to define his voice and to find how he will walk in this world as a person of faith," said Pennington.
Tanner holds out the hope that LGBT students will find the same welcome and acceptance he has felt at Sprit of the Lakes. "The most exciting part of the Equality Ride is being able to talk back to myself. It's like going back and being able to tell just one student that they are loved and valuable and that they have the right to be on that campus."
Information on Equality Ride sponsorship can be found at soulforce.org/enzi_tanner.