Carrying a Community: the Journey of Pastor Tori Jameson

Non-binary, kink- and trans-friendly pastoral care by Tori Jameson. Photo by Ronald Wagner.

Pastor Tori Jameson’s life had long been trending toward their unique place as a pastoral care provider for the queer and kink communities. But it was physically carrying a dead woman’s children during a march in her memory that brought Jameson’s life’s mission into sharp focus.

Jameson was serving at the church that did the burial for Kiwi Herring, the 30-year-old transgender mother of three who was shot in St. Louis by police responding to a dispute between Herring and a neighbor in 2017.

“Doing that level of visceral, interpersonal work changed my life,” they say. “All these statistics about the number of trans women killed — it’s always felt like numbers,” Jameson says. “Now, one of the numbers belongs to us. I’ve carried her children. It changed my perspective. I wanted to do everything in my power to create community, and also to fight like hell to keep these people alive.”

Jameson became a pastor in 2015, eventually creating Lot’s Wife Trans & Queer Chaplaincy, a sort of circuit-riding pastoral care organization not linked to a specific church. The organization is headquartered at Metro Trans Umbrella Group, and Jameson also works with MTUG on several initiatives. Jameson now serves people who, like them, felt forced out of their spiritual or religious homes because of their identities but still longed for holy connection and guidance.

Making their profession obvious with a collar. Photo by Ronald Wagner.

“I have the joy and honor to care for our transgender, gender non-binary community members,” they say. They also emphasize their care of the kink community, whose unique family configurations might not go over well in traditional houses of worship. “What that looks like is about seven thousand different things.”

That’s not exactly a pat job description, and Jameson says there’s no such thing as a typical day. They might be sitting in a hospital with a trans-expansive human while wearing a clergy collar and correcting medical staff’s use of pronouns as many times as it takes. They might be performing meaning-making rituals, like true-name baptisms. 

Lately they’re working on hosting end-of-life workshops, ensuring that peoples’ last wishes are codified (and notarized, by the multi-qualified notary Jameson) to prevent the nightmare of non-affirming and shaming memorial services. Another current project is an e-book called “Once Straight,” consisting of responses to claims by the “Once Gay” conversion therapy ministry program by homophobic megachurch Bethel Church.

While they’ve been moved by and connected to a higher power since childhood, the 34-year-old Jameson has plenty of critiques for churches — even ones that aren’t openly cruel and hostile.

“Churches are these big stone institutions.”

“Churches are these big stone institutions,” they say. “They move about as slow as stone moves. These institutions have not served well our particularly marginalized folks.”

Jameson cuts a rather dashing figure entering MoKaBe’s on one of those autumn afternoons that’s so gorgeous we all decide to forgive St. Louis for summer and winter. They’re tall and open-faced, with a braid casually woven into short light hair and a NASA shirt under a cardigan.

They texted to say they were going to be maybe five or ten minutes late because they’d been talking to a caller during their shift at the SQSH, a free, confidential queer support helpline. About six minutes later they roll into the coffee shop, taking a moment to greet proprietor and St. Louis queer legend Mo Costello. They light up with nerdy charm describing the “Bat Them” costume they’re working on for the upcoming Halloween weekend—a non-binary update on the moody superhero.

Jameson has been knocked down and kicked out of places where they went seeking sanctuary, finding cruelty rather than spiritual nurturing. Instead of becoming bitter, though, Jameson has chosen to find their own way and provide the care from which they would have benefited.

Their first faith experience was with Catholicism. 

“Growing up, I always had a connection to something bigger than myself,” they say. “I knew it through the language of stained glass and incense.”

But serving as an altar person as a gangly kid, they took a tumble during service one Sunday—embarrassing, sure, but they were hardly the first kid to do so. Bu the priest, rather than encourage the eager young Catholic, suggested that they and their family find a new church, Jameson says.

Fast forward a few years, and Jameson joined what they describe as a cult, with views they describe as “to the right of the Duggars,” referencing the troubled reality TV family with nineteen kids in hilarious hairstyles and modest frumpy outfits. 

“I joined because I needed stability and because I come from a chaotic family,” Jameson says. “‘Join us and you can have stability, marriage and family, a great life,’” they say the church said. “I with all my gusto dove into it.”

At the time, Jameson was not living in their truth as a non-binary queer person, instead going through life in the apparently heterosexual female packaging they’d been born with. Right out of college, they married a man from the church who died by suicide 22 months into the marriage.

The church, Jameson says, blamed them for their husband’s death, and cast them out.

“If I were my pastoral care provider, I would have expected me to lose my faith,” says Jameson.

But they didn’t.

They joined a highly conservative Southern Baptist church that felt incredibly liberal in comparison, given that some of the women occasionally wore pants and people read books other than the Bible. In that church at least, pastoral leadership quickly saw Jameson’s natural charisma as leadership potential, and recommended seminary.

They attended a single semester of seminary in North Carolina during the lead-up to voting on Amendment 1, the last state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. 

“I knew Jesus was consistently on the side of people being denied their rights,” Jameson says.

Most of the campus had a rather predictable and particular view in support of the amendment, but Jameson didn’t share it. At the time, it wasn’t necessarily queer solidarity motivating their choice, since they weren’t yet identifying as queer.

“I knew Jesus was consistently on the side of people being denied their rights,” Jameson says. “I have to imagine Jesus is on the side of people who are about to be governmentally marginalized, so I was against Amendment 1. I was the only one on my campus. It did not make me popular.”

Another moment at the seminary made it clear the education they were receiving wasn’t a good fit. The tiny population of female seminarians was gathered together and addressed by a higher-up in the administration. 

“Congratulations on pursuing your call as pastor’s … wives,” Jameson says he told the group.

“If I wanna wife up, there’s easier ways to do this — why am I studying master’s level biblical Greek?” Jameson says today.

So they found a new seminary, Andover Newton Theological School in Boston. There, the community was drastically different and skewed heavily queer. Their final year in seminary was 2014, the year a white Ferguson cop fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, a galvanizing time for people across the country.

“We shut down highways in Boston,” Jameson says. “I spent night after formative night being out in the streets.” 

“If I wanna wife up, there’s easier ways to do this — why am I studying master’s level biblical Greek?” Jameson says.

Jameson is careful not to compare their experience in that city with the way things went for protesters here in St. Louis. 

“After 45 minutes they politely told us to move,” they say. “It wasn’t tanks rolling down the street. But I saw how important organizing was.”

After seminary, they moved around the country working with homeless and poor people. They were living in Tulsa in 2016 when a murderous bigot executed 49 people inside Pulse, a queer Orlando nightclub. The aftermath of the massacre led them to come out.

“When I came out in Tulsa, literally zero people were surprised,” Jameson deadpans. “Everyone just assumed!”

They had been asked to be part of an interfaith memorial service for the victims during their coming-out process.

“I watched a thousand queer people packed in this tiny bar cry,” they say. “I wanted to cry with everyone because they were my people. I came out right then so I could mourn. I was spending so much time counseling people about living authentically, but I wasn’t doing it.”

For years, Shelley Tibbs-Moore’s version of authentic living has included the care and friendship of Jameson. Tibbs-Moore met them at her church and was impressed by Jameson’s youthful, vibrant openness. Tibbs-Moore says she felt immediately that she could talk to Jameson and be close to them.

Jameson re-baptized Tibbs-Moore in her true name after her transition. Later, they sat with Tibbs-Moore through the recent death of her wife, Christine.

“I met my wife in 1960 when we started first grade, 59 years ago,” says Tibbs-Moore, 65. “We grew up going to school together. Once I got into high school, she became my steady date. One of my favorite pictures of her is me and her at our junior prom.”

After high school, Tibbs-Moore served three tours in Vietnam, and returned to marry her sweetheart. Tibbs-Moore was raised with very traditional values, and the couple never even slept together until they were married.

“Well into our marriage, I came out. I had cross-dressed around the house with her since about 1982,” says Tibbs-Moore. “She didn’t count that as a big deal. But in 2010 I came out and told her flat out who I was, what I was. We had a rough spell for a while—it’s a lot to handle.”

Friends came by to see if Christine needed help moving out, given the news.

“She made me so proud,” says Tibbs-Moore. “She said ‘I married a person, I didn’t marry a body.’”

Tibbs-Moore and her wife stayed together until death parted them this spring.

“The last words she said to me was ‘my Shelley.’ It wasn’t ‘my Mike,’” says Tibbs-Moore.

“In all honesty, I was probably looking for my friend Tori more than anything,” says Tibbs-Moore. “I needed someone with me to carry the load.”

Christine had gone into the hospital for what Tibbs-Moore expected to be a routine ailment, and her health rapidly deteriorated. Once it became clear that the situation was anything but routine, Tibbs-Moore called her friend, Pastor Tori.

“Tori stayed with me the whole night,” says Tibbs-Moore. “Next day, we gave her last rites. Tori stayed with me the whole time we went through the hospital experience.” Jameson, says Tibbs-Moore, was a great comfort to her.

Pastoral care and providing last rites were important, but they weren’t the main thing Tibbs-Moore was looking for in the moment.

“In all honesty, I was probably looking for my friend Tori more than anything,” says Tibbs-Moore. “I needed someone with me to carry the load.”

And it was a heavy load—Tibbs-Moore had wrenching decisions to make at the hospital.

“The day came, I had to tell them to unplug all the life support,” says Tibbs-Moore. “It’s a real tough call to make, one I wouldn’t wish on anybody if I had a choice. When you’re losing a spouse of 45 years, it’s a lot harder to do. I needed someone to talk to, someone to share with, someone to tell me that the decisions I’m making are necessary, they’re right.”

Tibbs-Moore is still grieving, but she’s also continuing her life. She’s preparing to undergo training in lay ministry, which may be her biggest challenge yet. 

Recently, Tibbs-Moore and Jameson spent hours in the Transgender Memorial Garden, “just talking about issues that were on my mind,” she says. “They were kind of responsible for where I’m at right now. Knowing that I’m called to do something is one thing. Being brave enough to step up and say, ‘this is what I’m called to do,’ is something else.”

Through all her years of life, changes, and ups and downs, Tibbs-Moore has relied on faith, though it’s had to adapt to hostility from clergy and others.

“My faith is very important to me,” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of congregational care-type things in my life. I can go out under any tree, drop my feet in the creek and have my church there. I came to understand the need for congregational care for other purposes.”

And now, she’s preparing to learn to provide pastoral care herself, and to lead and serve others in the name of her faith.

“The transgender community is the most marginalized of any community,” she says. “It’s the most despised of any community.  My big goal is just, even if it’s only one person at a time, to educate the world on who we are. We’re not a threat. We’re just like you—we want to live our own life. That’s where my ministry will take me—ways to overcome the hate, the distrust, the dislike, and just be people.”

Amiyah Cole, 28, is a new staffer at MTUG. She helps trans folks find resources like food and hygiene products. She’s also happy to provide a listening ear when she can. Her faith, she says, is the rock of her life. And she’s also been hurt by traditional religious institutions.

“Me, right now, as a person, I get told all the time by Christians, ‘Well, because you’re trans, you’re going to hell. You becoming a woman is not how God made you.’ I am an African American transgender woman, and I just want other people to know that you can still believe.”

Cole comes from a family of Pentecostals and has been told by her parents that her life is not godly. She studied for a few years at St. Louis Christian College, but left after being told by the administration that only “thugs” were out in the streets protesting the death of Michael Brown. 

I am an African American transgender woman, and I just want other people to know that you can still believe,” says Amiyah Cole.

“When they said that, I felt disrespected for being black,” she says. “I just told them, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I can no longer be a student at this school.’”

So she’s had to find her own way, but her faith hasn’t wavered. Connecting with Tori Jameson through MTUG has been affirming and helpful—and felt at first like just a friendship, rather than a theological connection. But their bond grew and deepened in their discussions of their shared faith.

“The first time I met Tori, I did not know that they were a chaplain at first,” says Cole. “We connected and we have talked about our faith. I told them that it was always my prayer to help other people in the same situation that I’m in, because that’s the type of person I grew up to be.”

Cole says that the experience for queer folks of being hurt by the church is almost universal.

“So many people within the LGBTQ community have been hurt by the church that they are now becoming atheist,” she says. “They are like, ‘If God was real, how would God allow this person to treat me like this?’”

But Cole says she’s blessed and brings blessings into the lives of others—and that’s godly stuff.

“God still loves me for me,” she says. “God does not judge his children. For me as an individual, my faith is my foundation.”

A major connection point Cole found with Jameson, Cole says, is the idea that affirming faith communities need to be maximally visible, so that they can reach people who may have stopped looking for them but still want to find them.

“Any church that identifies as inclusive, any chaplain or pastor or whatever, should step out into the community and make their presence known,” says Cole. Quiet affirmation will not do. 

“We just talked about our connections, talking and elaborating on how the inclusive churches within our communities need to do more to let gays who have been hurt by the church know they are here, and within our communities, so that they could reconnect. Help them rebuild their faith without forcing it. Pray with them and let their faith do the rest of the work.”

Tori Jameson sees their work as the ultimate service to a beautiful, vibrant and challenged community—their community, where they love and are loved, and live as their truest, most authentic self.

“The queerer you got, the less likely you could find a spiritual community,” they say. “Polyamory is kind of a norm in our community. Our kink and leather communities also need spiritual support and can’t exist as their full selves.”

Their upbringing emphasized community, and their spiritual education led to a calling in a “mystical, pastor-y way” to serve their own community. Sometimes that service is explicitly spiritual or religious, but not always.

“It’s important for me to be able to say you can be a person of faith and care for our trans or kinky community,” they say. “I am, as far as I know, doing a unique thing in the world.”

“The queerer you got, the less likely you could find a spiritual community,” Jameson says.

The concept of “possibility models” is key to Jameson’s work. For them to wear the pastoral collar to events serves as a possibility model: “I’m visibly queer, I’m visibly non-binary. I need people to know there is spiritual support for trans people. I need to serve in the fullness of all I have to offer.”

Tibbs-Moore is a possibility model, too, Jameson says. She gets to share the wisdom of her grief with the community as they wrap around her. She gets to show them life after loss as a full and seen version of herself.

“You are an example of what it means to be old and trans,” Jameson says of Tibbs-Moore. “You’re going to be old and trans and die from something other than your trans-ness.”

For Jameson, yes, Christianity is their foundation. But don’t expect them to start yelling about Jesus if the situation doesn’t call for it. Jameson’s mission in their community is about faith, but it’s also about affirmation, love and support—things some old-timey Jewish carpenter was actually pretty big on. 

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