Meet the 25-Year-Old Trans Preacher Turning Her Baptist Church Into a Queer Haven

Erica Saunders is the second trans person in the U.S. to be ordained in the Baptist faith and the first to formally lead a congregation.

Erica Saunders, 25, grew up wondering if there was a place for someone like her in the Baptist Church. As a child sitting with dangled legs in the wooden pews during Sunday service, she was told humans were but sinners in the hands of an unforgiving, vengeful divine. “Humanity was inherently sinful and depraved,” she tells NewNowNext of the messages she heard during her youth, “and Jesus was the only way out.”

Although faith leaders made it clear gay people were “abominations,” Saunders never heard the trans community mentioned specifically during sermons. But it felt as if there were no room for anyone who thought or lived their lives differently than one narrow view of what the Bible deemed acceptable.

“I learned to be afraid of God,” she says. “God wasn’t hearing my prayers.”

Those early, formative experiences led to a long period of searching. Saunders converted to Catholicism, attracted to its emphasis on a “deeper intellectual and existential grappling with God,” and surrounded herself with worshippers from other faith traditions outside her own. For the first time, she was allowed to ask the questions that were considered taboo in a faith that prized blind orthodoxy. “I was exposed to new ideas and different kinds of people,” she says.

Erica Saunders

But as she slowly came to terms with her trans identity, Saunders realized Catholicism wasn’t the place for her, either. While Pope Francis, for example, has urged a more tolerant view of the LGBTQ community, he has claimed trans people are a threat to the family, referring to “gender ideology” as “ideological colonization.”

Saunders instead found home the place she had left it: in the faith of her upbringing. She began transitioning on her very first day at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. After graduating in 2019, the Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio, selected her as its new pastor out of a pool of 16 potential candidates. According to Barb Brandau, who has attended the church off and on for about 20 years, the decision among the search committee was unanimous.

“She’s intelligent, she’s highly educated, and she’s very young, which is good because all of us are 50 or 60 years of age and above,” Brandau tells NewNowNext. “Our church is going to die if we don’t bring in some younger folks.”

Housed in a one-room red brick church with Victorian gothic interiors, Peace Community Church hopes the 25-year-old’s pastorship can further build bridges between communities—that she can help to bring in students in a town of 8,000 people home to Oberlin College and LGBTQ people who have long felt excluded and shut out from organized religion.

Erica Saunders
The Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio.

Saunders is certainly off to a good start. When she was hired in July 2019, the quietly historic announcement made local and national headlines: Saunders is just the second transgender person in the entire United States to be ordained in the Baptist faith and the first to lead a congregation in a formal capacity.

According to Saunders, claiming that milestone is “surreal.” “I really struggled with whether or not to be publicly out because of all the bad things that could happen,” she says. “I’ve seen way too many of our sisters, brothers, and siblings be harassed, bullied, and threatened and killed for daring to exist as a trans person in the world, let alone in a space that has been as hostile as faith communities can be.”

While the thought of a Baptist preacher might conjure images of public access televangelists screaming about Sodom and Gomorrah, Peace Community Church has long affirmed LGBTQ people. The congregation is affiliated with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists and Rochester Genesee Region of the American Baptist Churches USA, the latter of which claims in its mission statement that “diversity” is a “gift from god.” The homepage of the church’s website features a photo with a rainbow flag draped over its front door.

Brandau says that the Peace Community Church is a “pace-setter” in what’s already a pretty liberal town—Oberlin College was once described as the “gayest college in America” by the Washington Blade—and it takes pride in that. When the city government voted in 2017 to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, two of its congregants led that campaign.

“Oberlin was the first college in the U.S. to let women in,” Saunders says. “The church and the town as a whole have always been at the forefront of being inclusive.”

Erica Saunders
The pulpit at Peace Community Church.

But even despite the church’s history of inclusion, many say Saunders’ impact on the community is unmistakable. Her example inspired Lindsay Denton*, a trans woman who lives in the area, to come to a service after reading about Saunders in a local newspaper. Denton says she hadn’t been to church in years because she was afraid of being rejected. “Most churches—even though they say they welcome all people—a lot of times they aren’t,” she tells NewNowNext. “I figured Erica’s church would be different.”

Peace Community Church was a lifeline for Denton. Although she had known that was was transgender since was around nine years ago, she came out at the age of 63 after being diagnosed with prostrate cancer. She lost nearly all her friends, and her family has virtually excommunicated her. “My children don’t want me to contact them—no texting, no phone calls,” she says. “It was hard at first, but I got used to it.”

Since coming to church, Denton has found a chosen family of friends and community members. She and Saunders get together for dinner and movie nights—most recently the Tom Hanks-directed, ’60s pop pastiche That Thing You Do. She says she feels more “at ease” and “relaxed” since Saunders came into her life.

“I don’t get depressed like I used to,” Denton says. “Before I didn’t have that many opportunities to enjoy life.”

Saunders hopes that other trans people who choose to remain in the Baptist faith have the opportunity to be seen, be embraced, and be loved for their whole selves—just as she has been. Finally carving out a space for herself in a religious community that she grew up believing would hate her if she were truly honest about who she is, Saunders says, has taught her that “God is bigger, deeper, and more mysterious than any one of us can imagine.”

“I hope that a transgender person who has a life of spirituality and is struggling to reconcile that with who they are will see me, that I’m out there, and that others like us are out there,” she says. “I want them to know that God loves them because of who they are, not in spite of it.”

*The subject requested a pseudonym for privacy reasons.

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.