Minnesota-based collective supports transgender Christians worldwide
When people ask Austen Hartke what his job is he says it’s a little hard to explain.
“I usually say that I work to support transgender people of faith, and that can look like a lot of different things.”
Hartke is the executive director of Transmission Ministry Collective, a Minnesota-based collective working to transform the relationship between faith and the LGBTQ+ community.
Hartke is a graduate of Luther Seminary in St. Paul and says his work has been focused on supporting trans-Christians for many years. He wrote a book in 2018 called Transforming and says the response was overwhelming.
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“I got all these emails from trans folks across the world saying where can I talk to other trans Christians about my faith?”
Hartke, who is transgender, said during the journey of his faith and gender he had to ask himself, “what does this mean?”
“A lot of it came down to the idea that God made me exactly how I was meant to be. God made me trans on purpose, it wasn’t some mistake that somebody made,” he said.
But Hartke said it isn’t the same for everyone, and it’s understandable that many LGTBQ+ people don’t find religious spaces welcoming. He said his number one goal is to make sure that trans folks don’t feel alone.
Learn more about the Transmission Ministry Collective here.
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That's why our next guest has created an online ministry based in Minneapolis dedicated to the spiritual care of transgender people from around the world. Austen Hartke is the Executive Director of Transmission Ministry Collective. Austen, welcome to the program.
AUSTEN HARTKE: Thanks so much for having me, Cathy.
CATHY WURZER: When you meet someone for the first time, they ask you what you do, what do you say? How do you describe Transmission Ministry Collective?
AUSTEN HARTKE: Yeah, it can be kind of a complex thing to try to explain. I usually say that I work to support transgender people of faith, and that can look like a lot of different things.
So the work that we do here at Transmission Ministry Collective is really about helping trans folks who are Christian, either they grew up Christian or they still identify as Christian or they're interested in Christianity, we draw that very wide. But providing them with community, providing them with the resources that they need to feel grounded in their faith and in their identity, and know that they're not alone in the world.
CATHY WURZER: What's the origin story for Transmission Ministry Collective?
AUSTEN HARTKE: We started out actually in 2020, in March of 2020, not intending to coincide with the pandemic, but that was the way that it worked out. And actually, it worked out fairly well because at the time, we had planned right from the beginning to be an online community. We wanted it to be available to anybody who had an internet connection or a phone, and so we had planned that from the start.
And so while so many other churches and organizations were trying to do that pivot to online, we had planned that out already. So we were actually in a pretty great spot when the pandemic started. But it really came out of my work, my work as an author and as a graduate of Luther Seminary here in St. Paul, my work has been focused on supporting trans Christians for many years now.
And I wrote a book that came out in 2018 called Transforming. And the response to that was I would get all these emails from all of these trans folks all over the world that would say, where can I talk with other trans Christians about my faith? And so that was really why we built Transmission.
CATHY WURZER: I'm sure your journey as a trans person of faith has been difficult. How did you reconcile your trans identity with your religion? Do you have to reconcile those two things?
AUSTEN HARTKE: I mean, that's-- I love that you jumped directly to that second follow-up question, do you have to reconcile them? Because I think for some people, it is really important. The work that we do, one, you kind of-- for me, at least, I'll speak for myself.
When I realized that I was trans and I found the language to explain something that I had always known about myself, I did ask that question of, well, what does this mean? Am I saying that God made a mistake in making me a specific-- making my body a specific way? Am I saying that God's wrong? Am I trying to say I know better than God?
So for me, there was a experience of trying to reconcile those things. And for me, a lot of it-- it took a lot of time. But a lot of it came down to the idea that God did make me exactly as I am meant to be, and that doesn't just mean my body, it also means the way my brain works. It means who I am as a person. That all of those things are intentional.
And so for me, my experience and understanding is that God made me trans on purpose, and that it wasn't some mistake that somebody made. And so that was my experience of reconciling those things. But that's not something that every person needs.
Not every trans person feels that need to come to a theological understanding some people just say, you know what? I know that God loves me and I know that I'm trans, and those things are just two immovable truths. And so if those two things are true, where do I go from there?
CATHY WURZER: How do you do Bible study? I ask that because many Christians think about gender, they tend to go back to the beginning. In Genesis, there's the creation story, humans created as man and woman, there's the story of Adam and Eve. How do trans or gender-expansive Christians, how are they supposed to understand those passages?
AUSTEN HARTKE: Oh, that's my favorite part. As a Bible nerd, this is exactly where I love to go. Yeah, there's so many different Bible stories that speak to gender and experiences of gender, whether it's gender expression and clothing and mannerisms or whether it's bodies and how our bodies exist and change over time.
So for me, going back to something like Genesis 1, it's really about digging in to figure out the context of the scripture. So with Genesis 1, it says that God made people male and female and people read that full stop-- male and female, that's it.
But when you look at the whole of Genesis 1, it's this beautiful that talks about God creating light and dark and land and sea and fish of the sea and birds of the air, and everything in Genesis 1 is this beautiful poem that deals in these binary things, these two opposites.
And so when we get to the creation of humans, it's not surprising that it becomes man and woman. It's this binary thing there, too. But that doesn't mean that creation actually only exists in those binaries. We know that there is dawn and dusk in the midst of day and night. We know that there are marshes and coral reefs and estuaries between the land and sea.
And the same thing is true when it comes to gender. We know that gender is much more of a spectrum or a constellation, and modern science backs that up.
And so really loving-- seeing how the context of the passage meets with our modern understanding of the world and realizing that in the same way, you don't have to choose between your faith and your gender identity, you also don't have to choose between faith and science, those things can go together.
CATHY WURZER: Are there biblical alternatives for identity-community relationship?
AUSTEN HARTKE: Oh absolutely, yes. I feel like one of my favorite-- one of my favorite stories to point to talk about this is in the New Testament, in the Book of Acts, this is a story that comes after Jesus's Death and Resurrection, there's this story of a man named Philip who's the one spreading the good news about Jesus, and he meets this person who is referred to as the Ethiopian eunuch. We don't have this person's name written down in scripture.
But Philip meets this person, and this person is, as a eunuch, somebody who had a physical experience of gender and gender expression that would have been very different, that fell outside of the gender binary. And this person, as somebody who was of a different race and ethnicity from Philip, also had a different experience of what that meant as an embodied person.
And Philip meets this person and this Ethiopian eunuch is worried about whether they'll be allowed into community-- into the community-- the new Christian community that's just forming.
And Philip baptizes this person and welcomes them in without any question, without any interrogation of this person's bona fides to be part of the community. It doesn't ask this person to change anything about themselves to become part of this community. They just agree that this belief and understanding is something that bonds them together.
And so there are so many stories like that where we realize that the necessary parts of community are not about the things that you-- that are internal to you and that you can't change, they're really about deciding how to be community together and the belief and the actions that are going to make that true for you. So there's tons of stories like that in the Bible that I think really speak to it.
CATHY WURZER: For folks who want more information, where can they go?
AUSTEN HARTKE: They can go to transmissionministry.com, and we have all kinds of support groups for trans and gender-expansive folks, they're all online. We also have workshops and Bible studies that are open to everybody. So if you're interested in doing Bible study or having-- learning more about what it means to be a trans Christian, we have tons of experiences and resources for you there as well.
CATHY WURZER: I've enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much and Happy New Year.
AUSTEN HARTKE: Thank you, Cathy, you, too.
CATHY WURZER: Austen Hartke is the Executive Director of Transmission Ministry Collective.
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