By Hillary Whittington
Last Sunday, the pastor at Foothills United Methodist Church in East County took a leap of faith when they decided to present my family’s story to the congregation.
I nervously wondered how the conservative and very traditional members of this church would react to our YouTube video being played during the service — which chronicles our young son Ryland’s journey from female to male — and later to my message of love and acceptance of my transgender son.
It was a big deal and I knew it was a risk that could come with some repercussions.
A newly formed group of loving and accepting church members, the main purpose of the Reconciling Ministries Committee is to ensure the church is inclusive of all people, regardless of age, race, gender identity, marital status, physical condition, sexual orientation, ethnic background or economic situation.
The group’s members vary in age and background, but share the common goal of making Foothills a welcoming church to the LGBTQ community.
Over 100 people packed into Foothills’ King Hall to enjoy the warm brunch prepared and served by the committee, listen to Pastor Eric bless our family, and hear me speak candidly about our journey.
Many from the senior generation commented that their “hearts were changed” by the event. Many folks in the crowd waited in line to buy my book, “Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child With No Strings Attached,” and to tell me how moved they were by my message.
Some said they hoped “God continued to bless us.”
I was brought to tears many times throughout the day, as our past experience with many religious family members, friends, and acquaintances has not been so encouraging. We have unfortunately lost close relatives and friends due to our decision to support our child in his gender identity. Sadly, we no longer speak to my closest cousin, who asked to remove Ryland from her wedding as a flower girl back in 2012.
Other friends have avoided us completely, with statements like “I will pray for your family,” while one mom from Ryland’s transitional kindergarten class told me, “I don’t know how you have raised your children … but my husband and I have raised our children to believe in the Lord.”
As you might imagine, the most common response from devout Christians has not always been a good one, and for this reason, I have always feared the outcome of an event of this nature. However, I was truly shocked to see the amount of unconditional love and support that poured in from the congregation of the Foothills congregation, especially because many of them are from an older generation who had not known me personally prior to this event.
The most poignant part of our story is that the lead pastor, Rev. Dr. Eric Smith, is a respected figure I have known all my life.
Rev. Eric was my pastor as a young child in Riverside County; he counseled my husband and I before he presided over our wedding in 2005; and he also generously drove with our family to Oregon so he could give the sermon at my only brother’s funeral in 2006. He even watched Ryland move through his “tomboy” stages prior to transition.
During the time I was grappling with Ryland’s gender identity, I received a phone call from Eric explaining he was being moved from his church in Irvine to the Methodist church in La Mesa, only minutes from our home.
In my mind, this move was absolutely by God’s doing. It came during a time that I expected to never step foot in church again, as having a child belonging to the LGBTQ community came with fears of rejection and mistreatment.
After last weekend, I can say that I am truly changed and I feel a renewed sense of faith in humanity.
If it was possible for members of our church, some as old as 90 years old, to have changed their hearts and minds, then it is possible to keep opening hearts and minds all over the world.
I believe God chose our family to raise Ryland and I will continue to be thankful for the supportive congregation at Foothills United Methodist Church.
—Hillary Whittington is the author of “Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child With No Strings Attached.” She and her husband Jeff live in La Mesa with Ryland and daughter Brynley. To watch their YouTube video, visit youtube.com/watch?v=yAHCqnux2fk