By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, Oct. 4, 2023 — Few visiting pastors who have preached at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ over its 165-year history have come with the global prominence – and past controversy too – that Rev. Paula Stone Williams will bring this weekend, Oct. 7 and 8.
My wife Mary Riche and I are Plymouth members, as I’ve told you before. While I don’t intend to turn this column into a re-run of stories I’ve written for our Plymouth Magazine, I’m making another exception here. A wider audience needs to know about the intriguing, insightful story this speaker will be presenting at our services, which are Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9 and 11 a.m., and at a Sunday 12 noon “Lunch & Learn” which has a $10 lunch donation suggested. No RSVPs necessary.
The book’s title makes it clear what the fuss is all about: “As a Woman: What I learned about power, sex, and the patriarchy after I transitioned.”
Rev. Paula Stone Williams.
I’ve read the 241-page book, and it is terrific. Everyone should read it. Williams’ dedication page says she wrote it “for all who believe living authentically is sacred and holy and for the general good.”
Yes, Williams is a transgender woman, one who only a dozen or so years ago “came out.” But she’d had feelings since she was 3 and 4 years old that she was a girl.
When she ended her hiding, it resulted in her ouster from the conservative church denomination where all had known her as Rev. Paul Stone Williams, one of their national leaders. The family’s involvement in that church stretched five generations and included many pastors like herself. And her transition also resulted in a temporary fracture with her own family of a wife, son, two daughters, and grandchildren.
There were awful moments.
There were also moments and questions – so many questions – that brought laughter and relief.
Like when a 4-year-old granddaughter, hearing the complicated news, said so honestly and innocently, “I do have one question for you: Do you still have a penis?” Williams, in her book, recalled, “If there had been any tension in the room, it was immediately gone. Everyone laughed…”
Then the girl and her young sister disclosed they’d already come up with a new grandparent name: “GramPaula!”
GramPaula took time and kindly “explained to the girls that you don’t ask a transgender person that question, because it is private.” They understood and accepted it.
In 2023, Williams has heard all the questions from so many people. Most she answers. A few she does not. She has shared her story so effectively – both in public forums and private counseling sessions – that she has undoubtedly saved the lives of tens of thousands of people around the world.
And she comes now to Plymouth Church as the featured preacher and speaker the weekend of Oct. 7 and 8, which is one week before our congregation’s celebration of 30 years as an “open and affirming” church.
“Paula and I both started our ministry in the same church tradition,” our senior pastor Rev. Dr. Jared Wortman explained. “Our paths haven’t crossed too much, but we have many shared people in our past. More pointedly, I know we’ve both lost some of the same friends because of how our theological convictions are now more expansive and inclusive.”
That tradition is known by some as the Stone Campbell Movement. It’s an American religion going back two centuries to its start on the new nation’s frontier. Today, Williams said, it includes about 5,000 churches, which are in three different denominations – the mostly-southern Church of Christ, the national Disciples of Christ, and the equally widespread Independent Christian Churches.
The latter, the Independent Christian Church, is the one in which both Williams and Wortman grew up and began their work. It was, and is, conservative, evangelical and has been rapidly growing.
“When Paula transitioned, I witnessed many people in the church tradition of my youth who couldn’t fathom or support her transition,” Wortman continued. “She lost a job, colleagues, and friends. But she kept writing and speaking with the conviction that the LGBTQ+ community was fully and entirely a part of the beautiful story of God at work in the world.”
Wortman sensed that Williams’ message would probably be a good fit in Plymouth’s celebration of our commitment to openness and affirmation for all people.
“Why did I invite Paula to speak at Plymouth?” Wortman said. “Yes, there’s the fact she’s written a beautiful and best-selling memoir about her experience of transitioning – and about all she’s learned along the way. And yes, there’s the fact that millions of people have viewed her TED talks.
“But I invited Paula to Plymouth because she’s one of the first people that come to mind as someone faithfully preaching, speaking, and advocating for the LGBTQ+ Christian community. Paula is courageously leading at a time when the church desperately needs to encounter and extend God’s radical hospitality and love.”
You can plan on being surprised, delighted, possibly challenged and almost certainly inspired by hearing Williams.
She told me in a long phone interview that her experiences in transitioning are now only a small part of her presentations.
“Ninety-five percent of my speaking now is not on being transgender, but on gender equity issues,” she said. “I talk a lot about male privilege, specifically white male privilege and its impact on our society. I have a unique perspective on that. I’ve lived it.”
She mentions her years in New York City and beyond as the CEO of a major church-affiliated organization that took an entrepreneurial approach to church-planting and growing. Now, after transitioning, “I see my power diminishing” drastically and constantly. And yet, “I don’t think I’ll live long enough to lose all my male privileges.”
Life for her now, as she describes it in both her book and in conversation is simpler, more peaceful, better, but still busy.
For 17 years, she and former wife Cathy have lived in Colorado, where both of their daughters and their families live. Their son is in New York City. All three children, incidentally, have been involved in ministries, social work and/or education.
Williams’ town of Lyons, population 2,200, is north of Boulder and is surrounded by the Rocky Mountains on three sides.
She and Cathy share a home there, “but we don’t consider that we are married now.” Williams said. They do get along. “I’m washing her car as we speak,” Williams continued.
The home also has their offices. They are partners in a busy, respected, and successful counseling practice named “RLT Pathways, Inc.” That “RLT” stands for the “Road Less Traveled.” Paula is also co-pastor of a 5-year-old, 100-member, independent, and progressive Envision Community Church, located in the nearby town of Longmont. She preaches “three weeks out of four.”
Cathy Williams declined to be interviewed for this story, but she was very cordial in doing so in a phone call with me. “I have always said no to requests for interviews about Paula and our family,” she said. “I don’t have a need or a desire to share my personal story. Some of that is because I feel like I’m still in the midst of it. I’ve said before I’m still not sure I know how to talk about it.”
She did share this: “People ask if I am angry with Paula. No, I’m not. I’m angry with society. I’m angry they’re not accepting and that they make it so difficult for those in the LGBTQ+ community. Let people live their lives.”
But society and life around little Lyons is pretty good, both say.
Williams serves on the community’s Board of Trustees – like our city councils – where she has just announced she is running for a second two-year term.
Townsfolk also know her for her long jogs around the area – seven days a week. “I’m blessed by good health, but I work at it,” she said. “My parents lived to be 92 and 96. Most people think I’m probably in my 50s.”
The town of Lyons, by the way, has highly educated and experienced leadership. Williams’ doctorate isn’t unusual there. More than half the trustees have advanced, professional degrees. Mayor Hollie Rogin heads an administration that campaigned on and is delivering “Rational, Respectful Representation.”
Rogin told me that Williams “is incredibly well-respected around here. “I’m continually impressed by her. During our board meetings, her insightful questions are so impressive and helpful. She’s a pleasure to work with.”
Are townspeople aware of Williams being transgender, or do they think of her as just another woman in the community? “Well, I’m aware of it, and everybody on our board is,” Rogin said. “But I don’t have a sense how widely her story is known out in the community.”
With people having moved to that area of Colorado from across the nation and around the world, “this is a pretty accepting place. We tend to be more progressive.”
At Plymouth Church in Des Moines, we think of ourselves that same way.
And as we celebrate that this fall, it will be interesting for us as we hear and consider Williams’ story and her message – and think of the future.
That’s something she ponders, too.
“How will people see the journey of a transgender pastor a century from now?” she wrote last month in a new post on her blog, “And So It Goes.”
She continued “Will anyone care? Will the fight for LGBTQ+ rights be seen as laudable, or will the conservative side have won, or will the controversy surround it be so far in the past that no one pays any attention. Who knows?”
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