J Vu Mai made history at the beginning of June by becoming one of the first black, transgender, non-binary ministers of the Christian gospel in the North Carolina. Mai, who is also part Vietnamese, is a rising second year student at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity and was licensed by the Rev. John Mendez of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. Mai anticipates receiving their master of divinity degree in 2021 and currently works as a graduate assistant the Wake Forest University’s LGBTQ Center. Mai uses they/them pronouns.
1. Congratulations! What does it mean to you to become one of the first black, transgender ministers in North Carolina?
It means a lot, and it also means little to me. It means a lot in the sense that there already exists black, trans, non-binary ministers in the state but, because of barriers to get licensed; in the black church, I’m one of the first. Hopefully this helps them become publicly acknowledged by their church, by the state and by their community.
2. When and why did you decide to become a minister?
I decided to become a minister because of a discussion in one of my divinity classes. It was essentially that at the end of the day, ministers have the say. We can talk about what’s good theology but at the end of the day, pastors have the ultimate authority. I was like, Fine. Imma be licensed or ordained. I also grew up Vietnamese Roman Catholic but was agnostic and low-key atheist all through college. What brought me back to faith was falling in love with my partner, who is ordained as a minister. She showed me that God and faith is much bigger than what violent people have to say about the faith. I also met a lot of black, trans, queer people in their spiritual journeys, and I recognized that I was worthy of and deserved healing.
3. What are the kinds of barriers that you talk about to getting licensed as a black, trans, non-binary person?
People feeling comfortable exploiting the labor — emotional, spiritual, mental — of black trans non-binary people. [The church] wants that person to do all the work of being minister without them having the systemic acknowledgement of being a minister. For a long time, being licensed or ordained has been a barrier. I want to make sure other people are legit and official. I’m not trying to be more legit; I’m trying to say that anyone can be legit.
This has a lot to do with the church I’m at too. Maybe at another church I wouldn’t have gotten ordained. That is a huge component as to why I was licensed, because of Rev. Mendez. He was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” It’s because of folks who are willing to take a chance on trans, non-binary folks within the black church. I also have access; my hope is to create more access for people.
4. How does your identity, particularly you being transgender and non-binary, affect your faith and your practice?
I identify as somewhat Christian but also somewhat agnostic. I perceive the binary between Christian or not Christian like I perceive gender to be a false binary. There are so many nuances of what it means to be Christian, what it means to be a non-binary Christian. There is a fluidity to it, just like there is a fluidity to my gender. Those boundaries and categories that we place ourselves in per religion is damaging and limiting for someone that exists outside of the binary like me. That impacts my faith practice because I’ve made a commitment to minister to all people. God doesn’t have a binaristic way of perceiving God’s ministry. I’m always striving to deconstruct those categories.
5. What do you hope to preach and practice now that you are a minister?
My initial sermon was about how God speaks in many native tongues. That includes transgender, non-binary queer people, even though our experiences have been placed on the margins. I also hope to preach trauma-informed messaging, especially for black folks, preaching about liberation from generational trauma. I hope to preach that people are worthy, that they’re enough and have the capacity to be fully loved the way they deserve to be loved, not the way society has told them they deserve to be loved which is very minimal.
6. What would you tell members of the LGBTQ+ community who are wary of religions, especially Christianity because of the hateful rhetoric that comes out of the faith at times?
I would tell them that they have right to be wary of that. As someone who has experienced spiritual violence from Christianity, whatever journey they take through healing is a valid journey — it’s part of the Christian journey. Even if you are wary and don’t feel like you connect, you are a valid voice. I want [them] to know that people like me are willing to sit in that tension and be present with [them], especially because of how [they] feel about religion. Christian ministers, in particular, are obligated to extend to people who have been harmed by religion deeply.