October 11, 2021
Wanting to witness others on a similar path, Reverend Mary Johnson begins to share the story of her transition from the Rev. Michael Johnson and her choice to now live fully as a person she feels God created her to be.
Living as a man, he evoked feelings that “more or less resembled being in solitary confinement, captivity,” Johnson said. “God’s call for me was to be just me. It was like the prison door opened and I had a choice to go out and be real. But the first person you have to go out to is you, and it’s a very real moment of ‘coming to Jesus’. Will God accept what I really am? “
The pastor whose membership is at the Baltimore-Washington conference, Johnson is the spouse of Bishop Peggy Johnson, who retired Sept. 1 as the episcopal leader of the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania conferences. After serving as a pastor in local churches since 1978, Mary Johnson chose another type of ministry, supporting and assisting the bishop in various matters.
“The biggest challenge was living in a closet,” Mary Johnson said. For most of the last decade, she has been forced to live two lives, pretending to be a cissexual man in most public environments and has often silenced her voice so as not to “become a problem” or distract from other ministries. “First, I didn’t want to hurt,” she said. “I tried to walk a thin line.”
“Living in a‘ closet ’was hard,” Bishop Johnson said. “It would not be an understatement to say that being an active bishop with a trans wife would be a challenge to my credibility if it were widely known. Even now, after 11 years, it takes some courage to “come out,” given the limited times we live in, the sharp division in the church on sexuality issues, and the general ignorance of this topic in society as a whole. ”
Over the past decade, the couple has learned and continued, formally and in other encounters, about transgender people and religion.
“Going into a better understanding of gender diversity, I realized that binary thinking is wrong,” Mary Johnson said. “It is shorthand that is easy because there are good and wrong things with it. But there are all kinds of people. There are many kinds, and God loves them all. Understanding each other’s perspectives helps us understand God because we are able to see God in them. ”
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are those whose gender identity differs from the gender that was thought to be born.
“The book of denomination discipline doesn’t talk about trans people at all,” Bishop Johnson said. “The passages that oppose homosexuality do not refer to people’s gender identity. Homosexuality refers to sexual orientation. Gender identity is completely different.”
As she changed, Mary Johnson said much of her daily life remained the same. “The only thing that has changed are superficial things, like the clothes and shoes I wear. I wear a little more jewelry and I wear scents that I enjoy. I still walk with the woman I love and read three or four books at a time. I still practice my devotions and worship the God I serve. ”
Johnson also found that her ideas about God changed little during her transition. “A lot of my understanding of the Christian faith has been focused on obedience.” But there was a shift when she began to realize that “God just wanted my love and God wanted to love me. … It was a milder experience of God that moved into the fruits of the Spirit. God was kind, gentle, and faithful to me. God wanted joy in my life and peace in my soul, which was different than God wants obedience no matter what. ”
Another shift is that “since the request for answers, she has become more satisfied with the questions. I believe that one of the marks of the Holy Spirit in your life is that you have new questions, ”Johnson said. “That’s how God teaches us through questions. The questions lead us to think about new thoughts. ”
For Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the episcopal leader of the Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore-Washington conferences, these questions go back to someone’s understanding and relationship to Scripture. Like Bishop Mary Johnson and colleague Peggy Johnson, Easterling said her heart immediately stirred when she heard their story, and she thought of “the burden of keeping her complete identity closed and how powerless it is to hide a part of yourself for fear of rejection. “
Reflecting on how the United Methodists should respond to transgender people, Bishop Easterling said: “The way we interpret Scripture will absolutely determine his understanding of transgender people. If you believe the Bible establishes binary gender categorizations, some of the choices of transgender people become challenging to understand. However, if you believe that the Bible does not establish binary categorizations, it is easier to get into a conversation. I think we should leave room for different interpretations and engage in honest, respectful, questioning conversations to examine, challenge, and deepen our thinking. Our understanding of many aspects of life has expanded over time, which includes gender roles in society and the church, as well as human value and personality. As other disciplines expand our thinking, we must expand our theological thinking as well. The bishop added that “given the Book of Disciplines, it is clear that transgenderism is not an offense that can be accused.”
Easterling said she believed that “this gracious call to Mary’s life is an opportunity for listening, learning and prayerful discernment.” And, she said, “I don’t believe it is appropriate to question the timing of such personal information. Bishop Johnson and Mary Johnson are servant leaders, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost all autonomy in life. We must be careful when crossing borders. ”
For the Johnsons, “faith in God and God’s protective hand and guidance through it all was a‘ tie that always binds, ’” Bishop Johnson said.As they progress together, she holds tightly to the embroidered image her mother made and gave them on their day. wedding in 1978, which says, “To love and to be loved is the greatest joy on earth.”
“Our journey of love in pastoral ministry, the upbringing of two sons, the episcopate and this transgender transition was steeped in love, mutual respect and sacrifice,” Bishop Johnson said. “Love is not glamorous, but deeply real and helps us greatly in this moment of revelation. Knowing that we love each other and are surrounded by the love of God and people who understand make us feel truly blessed. ”
Mary Johnson agrees. He often counts his blessings. Born in 1954, at a time when “boys were boys and girls were girls”, she remembers cooking and sewing, her love of reading and writing, and her dream of running an orphanage for babies. He also remembers time, even as an adult, feeling invisible. Over the years, she said, “I realized that no one had ever seen me, me that I had long ago imprisoned by denial, repression, and repression. I felt like there were two people, so I looked it up on the internet and got a new word to research – ‘transgenderism’. ”
Johnson retired in January. Today she and Bishop Johnson live in Virginia. She finds great joy in her new grandson, continuing to write liturgies for the Day of Great Thanksgiving for Communion, and she also discovered a church home in a nearby united Methodist church, where, she said, “they called her by name and treated me with respect.” “I think it would have broken me if I had ever found out I couldn’t worship in church,” she said.
And she, Bishop Easterling and Bishop Johnson, are all praying – for transgender people and for the United Methodist Church.
“Sharing the deepest truth is empowering and vulnerable at the same time,” Bishop Easterling said. “My prayer is that the entire Johnson family is surrounded by prayer, support and protected from evil. I pray that they continue to acquire the resources they need for their mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being. I pray that this becomes a time for those who love them to provide love and support, knowing that they too will be under deep scrutiny, accusations and rejection by some. … This can be a rich opportunity for the growth of our understanding and for humility in research. We are all created in imago dei, and I do not believe that it changes how individuals live in the fullness of their created being. Our understanding is still so limited regarding all creation and our Creator. ”
Bishop Easterling said he considered “a privilege to be called into this part of Johnson’s life and we should consider it sacred.” She hopes people will see this as an opportunity to “help those they lead and serve to make their lives meaningful, especially from a theological context,” she said. “I hope the pastors will take the time to educate themselves about the things they have brought to their attention so that they can offer an informed, insightful, well-reasoned analysis to the discussion. It is both the responsibility and the joy of pastoral ministry. “
Bishop Johnson also offered a message to everyone in the churches and at the conferences she and her husband served. “God loves you all, the way you are,” she said. “Spread that unconditional love to the world and turn it upside down.”