Post Author: Meredith Cox
“Cultivate your interconnectedness.” -GETI Small Group Leader
When someone says to you, “Hey, I think you should apply to go on this trip to Africa and, by the way, we’ll pay for it,” you just apply! It was a long time before I grasped what I had actually signed up for, never having heard of the World Council of Churches (WCC) or the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) before the invitation to apply. But in the unfolding, I found more life, hope, and joy in the global church than I ever knew I would see in my lifetime.
Joining 120 young people from around the world in Arusha, Tanzania, for the GETI program, I was blessed to participate in the WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism. The theme of the conference was “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship.” My participation in the conference was graciously covered by the PC(USA) Mission Agency as the office sent six delegates to participate in GETI. Being a part of the GETI program meant extra homework and (more exciting than the homework) the opportunity to learn alongside other young theologians in small groups and with various speakers who came to share with us.
Upon arrival at the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge, it became clear to me that the GETI students brought the youthful energy to the overall conference of about a thousand global Christians. It was about halfway through the week when the conference, I assume wanting to bring a little bit of that youthful vigor to the event, had the GETI participants lead a sokoni. “Sokoni” is a Kiswahili term that means “marketplace.” The idea behind having a marketplace at the conference was that it served as a place where conference-goers could gather to exchange ideas, stories and activities. But I’m not sure the conference leaders realized exactly what they were unleashing when they asked a group of fiery, young, social justice-oriented participants to demonstrate how youth like to engage in mission.
Amidst the marketplace, a group of us offered up a version of a protest demonstration. Our marching and our signs were not directed towards anything at the conference but, instead, were intended to demonstrate the kinds of issues young people care about. Our signs read things like, “Water Is Life,” “Xenophobia Must Fall,” and “Black Lives Matter.” My sign read, “Protect Trans Youth.”
For much of the conference, I had felt invisible. Being gender non-binary at a global conference (particularly a global Christian conference) is not the easiest thing to do. A big part of this uneasiness came from the fact that in many languages there are just no words yet for gender identities outside of the gender binary (male or female). Some languages, like Spanish, are very binary driven and this translation barrier caused much confusion when I brought up my preferred pronouns: they/them/theirs.
But something changed for me as I was holding my sign during that sokoni. From this experience, I knew I was meant to be there, in all my trans-ness and in all my non-binary flare. Below is a journal entry I wrote that same day:
Today was rather incredible. I participated in our GETI Sokoni with my protest sign, “Protect Trans Youth.” I’m not totally sure what I expected, but people were incredible! So many photos were taken of me with my sign, photos that will travel to places I may never go myself. These photos will inspire or teach, bringing a transgender presence around the world. It would have been easy to feel like a spectacle, but I wasn’t alone. Others started coming up alongside me with signs that said “I Agree” and “Me Too” and “I’m With Her.” It was the first time at the conference that I’ve been able to let go of the pain of constant misgendering and just feel like myself, feeling seen and valued.
Person after person, from what seemed like every corner of the globe, approached me, and I was in awe of their encouragement and their passion for transgender and LGBTQ+ rights. People from places like Kenya, Indonesia, Germany, Brazil, the UK, and more all voiced their support. A professor from Kenya told me, “Never lose hope! There’s hope, even here in Africa!” Tears came to my eyes. We both knew what it meant to voice this resistance in Tanzania, in a country where being queer is a still considered a crime. But through this experience I was able to provide a space for allies and for other LGBTQ+ people, longing for that moment to share their own story and be seen. It was such an incredible gift and a feeling I will try not to soon forget.
Does the global church still have room to grow? Undoubtedly. The number of times I heard “brothers and sisters” that one week alone felt like an eternity of misgendering and invisibility. But, as my Kenyan friend urged, I do not lose hope. Instead I thank God for this experience I had. I praise God for the opportunity to be an inspiration of change and a safe place for my siblings around me. And I pray for the global church. I pray for the global church to be moved by the Spirit to prepare the way of inclusion and embrace for our LGBTQ+ siblings, especially those who are transgender and gender non-binary. For the world is about to turn.
My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.
Meredith Cox (they, them, their) currently serves as the Ministry Partner for Pastoral Care and Discipleship at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
Meredith is originally from the Atlanta area, but most recently has come by way of New Jersey, where they received a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education and Formation from Princeton Theological Seminary. Before seminary, Meredith served as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in San Antonio, Texas, and is still deeply tied to the YAV program as a regular worship leader for their retreats.
Image by: Meredith Cox
Used with permission