I sat across from Janna for four hours last week, two days before the end of the year. But it was, for me, the beginning of something new.
Janna spent 20 years as a sailor, in the United States Navy. She retired as a commander and started an equally impressive career in the United States Foreign Service.
Throughout this illustrious career, she was a practicing Roman Catholic. Now she is an atheist.
“I was ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church,” she explained to me over lunch. “I was assigned to the diocese of Lexington (Kentucky) and spent many hours serving the people in Eastern Kentucky.” When I inquired, she said, “I got my training at St. Meinrad Seminary.” To which I replied: “I have been there many times. In fact, I once broadcasted TheMeetingHouse from their campus.” But I did not elaborate.
Janna met a person who knew me, and when my name came up, she said, “I know Dwight. I once bought some property from him.” That’s how I remembered her. Her name and phone number were still in my phone contacts.
She went through the change a few years ago: emotional, relational, legal, physical change. Which brought her to a new role as public advocate for transgender life in central Kentucky. From that platform she wrote me: “I would like to invite you to be a guest on my radio show.”
The show is called “Transactionality” and focuses on the needs and aspirations of gay and trans people. It airs Monday evenings on WLXU 93.9 FM (radiolex.us).
As I was already scheduled to be in Lexington for the week, I said Yes, but thought two things: first, what in the world do I know about transgender people? Only once have I even met a trans person and that conversation lasted all of five minutes.
And second, how can I interview her? As a broadcast host myself, I am familiar with the search for interesting and available people. If she is a good host, I thought to myself, I will turn the tables sometime in the future and make her my guest in TheMeetingHouse.
She was good. Very good, in fact. I protested my ignorance on the matters at hand more than once: before, during, and after the recording when we sat across the table at lunch (with two of her friends). But she had read my stuff, she explained, and listened to my broadcast, enough to know my sense of these things.
She asked about TheMeetingHouse, how it got started and where the name came from and what it means. She asked about my experience with gay and lesbian people. I told of encounters while teaching at a liberal arts college and, more recently, while preaching at an open and affirming church in North Carolina. She was interested in my journey, and I was open about where I had been and how I had gotten to where I am.
Her kind hospitality more than anything made it a pleasant experience. Our shared curiosity about life and our commitment to grace in life made our conversation easy and open.
I learned a lot from Janna in those four hours.
Prior to the recording, she sent me an article about a young adult whose journey from female to male began when he was seven years old. He knew then but did not tell his mother until he was 12 years old. “I feel like a boy,” she said. “I love you,” his mother responded. Thus began a most improbable journey for both of them: trusting each other and hanging onto Jesus.
It is that mix of gender dysphoria and deep religion that interests me, that interested Janna. But it is also the issues of life and death:
“Eighty two percent of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have tried,” she said. I don’t recall if that was in the studio or around the table. “LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.”
Even inexperienced I can calculate what modest efforts on behalf of a trans teen can produce such major results. Life, and hope, and joy.
Our little church has a motto: Sing for Joy and Live with Hope. Little did I know when I introduced that double sided declaration how fitting it would be for this fresh version of gospel work into which I have been called.
I don’t know if and how our recorded conversation will help anybody; we will find out, perhaps, when it airs on February 27. But I know this: it is one more step in the steep learning curve I have been on since the first day I vowed to follow Jesus and walk in his ways. I’m still learning, still following, still listening, still trusting the Goodness that resides at the center of all things.
Thank you, Jesus. And thank you, Janna.