On Sunday afternoon I was sitting in front of a cafe in downtown Washington, sipping coffee under a sliver of roof on a wet day, minding my own business, when three people who were clearly tourists walked up and gestured for me to take out my headphones. When I did, one asked, “Can we pray for you?”
I asked why they wanted to pray for me, and the same person answered that they felt called by God to walk the streets of D.C. and let God’s voice tell them who might be “broken” or otherwise need prayer.
As a Christian, I’m opposed to neither prayer nor people praying specifically for me, at least not when it’s done in good faith. But I’m also a transgender woman, and I was dressed in gorgeous makeup and clothing and earrings. I sure caught the gist of why these folks happened upon me to offer prayer.
My introduction to Christianity was in evangelical churches. For years, I navigated conservative religious spaces where I encountered bigotry and attempts to shame LGBTQ people and women as often as I found warmhearted people eager to serve others. There was more than a little racism, too. I’ve heard the statement “I’ll pray for you” said with love, and with judgment and scorn. I know the difference, and the folks who confronted me outside the cafe were making their judgment clear.
Instead of a theological debate that usually goes nowhere for lack of good faith in discussion, I wanted them to feel what it’s like to have someone supposedly approach in love but inflict pain and discomfort. Perhaps that’s what it takes. A forced perspective in empathy. Why not try that approach?
I could have ignored them but I’ve had it with some evangelicals giving a bad name to their community by insisting on defining people’s humanity for them. These three assumed I was broken because of my gender identity. They saw the constellation of my personhood through a backward telescope. It angered me that the whole of my being could be reduced to their flawed understanding of LGBTQ people, a view that could easily be revised if only they would take the time to get to know me instead of assuming they already did.
So I would be damned if I would let them interrupt my Sunday afternoon coffee when I certainly wasn’t bothering them. I asked their spokeswoman if she understood how it might look to be searching for “broken” people to pray for, and specifically pick out a random transgender person. And they looked more than taken aback.
I stood up, smiling but internally annoyed, and asked them what the Book of Matthew says about prayer. Their eyes went wide. One guy stammered nervously, clearly having trouble answering the question. The other two were just as flummoxed, ambushed by the idea that the “broken” transgender person was asking a simple question about a common verse on prayer in Matthew.
For those who don’t know, Matthew is the first book in the New Testament and one of the three Synoptic Gospels, each of which are narratives of the life of Christ, frequently using the same stories, often with identical wording. While all three contain instruction on prayer, I reached for Matthew 18:20 because of its strong presence in the evangelical community and its common misapplication by members. In short, it reads: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.”
Those up on their biblical knowledge might wonder why I didn’t turn to Matthew 6:5-7, scathing verses that call out hypocrites who are performative in their Christianity, telling them to pray in private rather than out on the streets so that they might be seen by others. It’s a good one that, unsurprisingly, is ignored in evangelical circles. They know it’s there, but it’s inconvenient.
The verse I selected hits hard instead because it’s so commonly heard before a group prayer in evangelical churches. There, it tends to be inaccurately interpreted as a numbers game, one that’s about bringing to fruition what is requested of God in prayer. Evangelicals think of it as a call to bring more people into the church or, more cynically, personal prosperity through the gospel.
In reality, it’s a verse on accountability before God and about how God may work that accountability through humans. As Leisa Baysinger notes on the blog Our Ancient Paths, it references earlier Jewish tradition that at least three witnesses must agree to bring judgment on someone. In the moment I was unaware of its exact roots, which were surprisingly apt given the attempt of this small band to sit in judgment of me, but I still understood what was at stake in the line, and I loved the idea of using a verse on accountability that they had probably misunderstood numerous times.
I was the judged who understands the law better than those attempting to judge, and on that day I sought to bring accountability.
These aren’t issues I take lightly, and the passive-aggressive condescension of these three was anything but harmless. This wasn’t the time to be polite. Not when the Trump-Pence White House is trying to ban transgender people from the military. Not when transgender students with stories of discrimination are turned away by the Department of Education. Not when President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are seeking to implement a Health and Human Services Department regulation allowing health-care workers to deny potentially lifesaving treatment to LGBTQ people. Not when the Human Rights Campaign reports that nationally eight transgender people have been killed in 2018 and 28 in 2017 — the most ever annually. I wasn’t going to be silent.
Instead, I spoke.
“You know how Matthew says that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, there He is with us?”
They stared at me blankly. I had no intention of going easy on them.
“That is what Matthew says, is it not?”
At last, one spoke up: “Yes, that’s right.”
“So let’s pray.”
And they nervously stepped forward into a circle.
I said to one, “You start us off.” And she did, going through the motions quickly and antiseptically because they clearly wanted to get as far as they could from this awkward situation. And then I picked it up when it was clear she was done.
“Lord Jesus, thank you for the benefit of these friends,” I began, wholly honest with God about how I hoped She would bless my new friends, encouraging them to affirm and be inclusive of others. I was hopeful that their community would honor all as God made them and value the strength of diversity.
I mentioned the natural beauty of the LGBTQ community and thanked God again for making us as we are, throwing in a genuine wish that their trip back home would be a safe one. Then, knowing my audience, I wrapped up with the usual evangelical banal phraseology — “no weapons shall be formed against them,” “put God on their hearts” — to let them know I was just as familiar with their community’s vernacular as they were, maybe more so. As I finished, having returned their “let us pray for you” to them tenfold, they murmured their thank-yous and scuttled away.
I don’t know whether my words made it through, but I hope they have a sense of what it feels like to have a stranger impose self-righteous venom on them. I also hope that they’ll realize how much actions such as these diminish the power of prayer and enable so much harm to LGBTQ people. A prayer that one might change their sexuality or gender identity is egregious encouragement to those who would seek to discriminate against LGBTQ people in our laws and to do violence against them in our communities. My own prayer’s acidity served to make them aware of their own by way of spiritual inoculation.
These people did not want to know more about me. They wanted to talk at me and pray at me. And I’m confident that’s not how Jesus would go about it.
There are many in the evangelical community who love and affirm their LGBTQ family, friends and fellow humans. It’s unfortunate, then, that others in the community still must be told a simple truth: They are not doing the Lord’s work by politicizing prayer at the expense of others or by dumping their misplaced condescension on strangers they believe to be broken.
Prayer should be a loving act, not a weapon of marginalization.
Charlotte Clymer, a transgender woman and U.S. Army veteran, is a press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign. She wrote this for The Washington Post.