She Knew Who She Was (Memorial for Pamela Renee Jones)

July 22, 2011

Pamela Jones knew who she was. I can’t say that about very many people I’ve known. But then, not many of the people I’ve known have been as passionate as Pamela was about being who they really are. Oh yes, she knew who she was!

That’s not to say that Pamela was a simple person. Quite the contrary, she was a complex woman. A woman of depth and compassion, she was inspiring to so many people, a beacon of hope. But she was often smitten with despair. Her motto for living was: “If you do your best, it always works out for the best.” She believed that with all her heart. But sometimes it didn’t seem to be going that way and she was rattled. She was tired from her illness, at peace with her God and ready to go at any time. But she still had so many things she wanted to do. She was truly amazing, but not perfect by any means. She struggled in this life as we all do.

Publically, Pamela was a force worth reckoning with. She was co-founder of the Charlotte Gender Alliance, a discussion group focusing on issues affecting the transgender and transsexual community. She had served on the board of trustees for the Lesbian & Gay Community Center of Charlotte and she was a board member for Sean’s Last Wish. She also served on the board of directors for Equality North Carolina and had been very active with their transgender task force.

Pamela had a particular passion for bridging the gap that exists between religion and the LGBT community. And she was just the person to do it because she understood both worlds. There was no doubt that she was a woman of great faith. But it’s the approach she took toward communicating with conservative Christians that made her unique. You know, the kind of people who hold up signs and make it clear that you’re going to hell because of who you are and the way you’re living your life. It’s hard not to take that personally when you know for a fact that they’re talking about you. Most people who are hurt by religion-based bigotry will respond to it in one of two ways. Either by getting in their face and confronting them, or by turning your face in the opposite direction and walking away. But Pamela chose neither of those approaches. She didn’t get in their face, nor did she turn her face away. Instead, she chose to stand face-to-face with them and have a civil conversation. Brave. Loving. And a little crazy.

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church was significant to Pamela and she felt led by God to be here. I remember how she felt about being baptized again as “Pamela.” She needed to be a part of a Christian community where she felt completely accepted as the person she was, and she experienced that at Holy Trinity. Of course, for our part, she made it so easy. Folks here loved her immediately. She became a part of our lay preaching group and within months of joining us stood in this pulpit and proclaimed the good news. If any had any hesitation about her, all that melted away. When she ran to serve on our Congregation Council, she got more votes than anybody. Pretty cool for a newcomer in a small church.

Pamela spoke widely about the transgender experience with university classes, civic groups, churches, and at the corporate level. If you ever had the opportunity to hear her speak, you were probably blown out of the water. I was at a “Becoming a More Inclusive Church” training event when I heard her. The leaders had been all over the country doing similar events and they had never in their lives heard anyone like Pamela. She has a way of communicating that puts people at ease. Her humor is a big part of that. And her stories are fascinating because she has lived through it all.

She tells about the time when the only safe thing transgender people could do was exchange Polaroid pictures with one another in the mail. But not just as a footnote in history; she was a part of that. I’ll never forget her story about her friend Connie who met her in a motel room where they got dressed up and then Connie did something so brave. She stepped outside the door to their room and walked a few feet on the sidewalk. As someone who came out in the late 60s, Pamela lived through it all. And she had grown so comfortable in her own skin that there was no doubt about who she was. On the occasion when I heard her speak, you could have heard a pin drop. I believe she spoke for almost two hours and it felt like 10 minutes. Afterwards the overwhelming consensus was, if you had never met a transgender person in your life and you could only meet one, Pamela Jones is the one you should meet.

She knew who she was. And, at the foundation of who she was, she was a Christian. She wasn’t ashamed to tell you that. Now, we all probably have our ideas about what it that means, but here’s what we can learn about what a Christian is from the life of Pamela.

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? Do you know that Jesus never says, “If you want to follow me, you have to confess me as your Lord and Savior and believe in me.” He also never says, “If you want to follow me, you need to be baptized and join a church.” But here’s what he does say, over and over again, in a lot of different ways: “If any want to follow me, let them deny themself, take up their cross and follow me. For if you’re willing to let go of your life, you’ll gain it. But if you cling to your life, you’ll lose it.”

We all have this false self that we have to deal with. It’s the person we like to pretend we are, the image we project to the world around us. The false self is the person who has to prove they have worth so they will strive to show they’re better than other people. The false self hides behind the stuff they acquire, their accomplishments, a job title, or a cranky personality or a smile. It’s not who we really are. It’s this persona we use to protect ourselves from being seen as we really are.

And the thing is, Jesus says that if you want to be like him, you’re going to have to let your false self go. You’re going to have to lose that persona so you can become the real person God created you to be. That’s a scary thing for us. If we strip our false selves away, who will we be? But Jesus’ point for his followers is that if we don’t strip our false selves away, we can never be in a true relationship with God. For God knows us as we truly are. And no matter who we might be, God loves us unconditionally as we truly are. Being a follower of Jesus is a journey toward wholeness for us as God’s people. It’s becoming the people God created us to be, becoming our authentic selves before God. That’s our life’s work as children of God.

The task of discipleship, losing our lives to gain them, this life-task of becoming the person God created us to be, is something we all deal with in different ways. It’s obvious that Pamela struggled with it in a way that few of us ever will. She understood it as more than a nice way to live her life. She understood it as the only life-giving choice for her to make.
In her own words:

“Many of us spend a lifetime trying conform to what others think we should be, rather than who we were intended to be. There eventually comes a time when the need to be a real person takes precedence over all else. There comes that defining moment when we must take off the mask and become genuine. Before we can give the world our best, we must first give ourselves our best. We learn that it really is okay to be who we are, no matter who we are.

It is in these defining moments when we learn how to live, rather than to merely survive, when we feel that spark of hope that lies within each of us and come to the realization that our lives have a higher purpose than we ever dreamed.”

Being your authentic self comes at a price. That was true for Pamela. It meant losing people from her life she once considered friends. It even meant losing her own children. That shows how important living as her authentic self was to her. I would like to believe it’s that important to me. Knowing Pamela has forced me to struggle with that in a way I hadn’t before.

There are certain words that I heard her use a lot. One of them was integrity. Another was vulnerability. Both were major themes in her life. She had such a way of expressing herself, that, again, I’d like you to hear Pamela in her own words.
She was reflecting here on a passage from The Shack that she found meaningful. Here’s the passage:

“A bird is not defined by being grounded, but by it's ability to fly. Humans are not defined by their limitations but by the intentions God has for them; not by what they seem to be, but by everything it means to be created in His image.”

And here’s what Pamela said about it:
“Thank goodness for that basic truth. If I were defined by my weaknesses, and they are more than most people know, my life would be one of drifting, ever searching and never finding.

“As a transsexual woman, I am not defined by my gender identity or a quest for sense of self. I learned long ago it was there all along, only waiting to be claimed. I would hope my life is defined by how I treat others and the way I live my faith while respecting that of others.

“Many of us in the transgender community, and society, misunderstand the difference between goals and life's purpose. For a transgender woman, electrolysis, facial surgery, hormone therapy or SRS (sex reassignment surgery) are only goals along the journey, not the journey's end.

“Given the emotional turmoil many of us face, it becomes natural to say if we can only undergo SRS, our purpose will have been fulfilled. The reality is, we already are the person we wish to be by claiming our right. My sense of self was claimed long ago. It was only by becoming vulnerable to the point I could grant myself the chance to fail that I was able to succeed.

“Too many of us have the victim mentality. There comes a time when we must move from defining ourselves not as victims, but as victors.”

This woman understood what it means to lose your life in order to gain it. It’s the movement of death and resurrection. And it’s not something that just happened for Pamela last Tuesday for the first time. It was a way of life for her. As it is a way of life for all who would be followers of Jesus.

But there does come a time when the struggles of this world are left behind us and we move on to the next adventure God has in store for us. In Pamela’s words: “When the final counting is done, the goal of each of us is to say ‘I found my way’. Thinking of this story and hundreds of others, I can say that. I know who I am but more importantly, I know whose I am. That has made the difference.”

Pamela Jones knew who she was. We can celebrate that. But even more importantly, Pamela Jones knew whose she was. And where she is now, that’s all that matters.

Thanks be to God!

Pastor Nancy Kraft
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
July 22, 2011