If I Join a Church After Prison, How Much of My Past Is Safe to Disclose?

    Last Sunday, I tried to work up the courage to go to church. I did some Googling of the churches sprinkled around the Georgia county where I currently live. There are dozens; I could take my pick. But when I think about meeting a new congregation, I freeze. Do I introduce myself as trans? As someone who just got out of prison? As a registered sex offender? Or do I make up some story that’s easier?

    In September I was released, after 13 years in Georgia Department of Corrections custody, into a rural part of the state I’d never been to, where I have no family or close friends. As a believer, as well as a someone who’s been ordained and holds a doctorate in theology, church is one of the few places I might actually be able to find community and form meaningful relationships.

    But church congregations in the South already trend to lean right. Then the media feeds in hateful rhetoric around “trannies” who are “groomers.” And now, instead of the usual fictitious argument about some elusive trans woman sex offender—well, here I am.

    I could go up in front of everyone and disclose my past in testimony. But which parts are safe to disclose?  What if I guess wrong?

    People conceive of sex offender registries (SOR) as exclusively full of child predators. They don’t necessarily know that these registries include people with a broad range of unrelated convictions, and a cross-section of vulnerable communities.  I know I’m not a danger to children, and that I’d be at church to go to church, but I have a paralyzing fear of being in proximity to children and families. Any parent might decide I don’t belong, and because I’m on parole it feels like the slightest whisper could send me back to prison at any moment. Freedom is a tenuous thing when you’re no longer innocent until proven guilty.

    Maybe it’s best to get ahead of the narrative, by going up in front of everyone and disclosing my past in testimony. But which parts are safe to disclose, and what if I guess wrong?

    Church is the place we’re meant to build true spiritual bonds with one another through our willingness to lay bare our authentic selves. I badly want to do this, and am struggling to reconcile that desire with my fears—of rejection, but also for for my physical safety. Honesty just seems to invite more problems.

    I’m not discounting virtual church services. But online communities have been my refuge for a long time, and I ache for the kind of community-building that people on SOR aren’t permitted to have. I can attend church services, but I’m essentially supposed to go straight in and straight out; no loitering. I can’t do any volunteering, let alone take any paid position.

    Maybe there are others who share some of my experiences. I know I’m not the first or only person to go through this.

    So much anxiety has come from this that I almost wish belonging to a community of faith didn’t matter to me. But it’s a big part of my self-image and my happiness. Without it, my personhood is incomplete.

    In the body of Christ is the acknowledgement that we are not perfect. I know that I’m not, but many believers have lost sight of the fact that we are not required to already be saved. That the church is not a luxury club for sanctified saints. If they don’t find me welcome, where else am I supposed to belong?

    The irony is that I’m going to have to act on faith. Some of this fear is a product of my own trauma, and I’m aware of that. It may be that the community awaiting me on the other side of the church doors is inclusive and warm. Maybe there are members who share some of my experiences. I know I’m not the first or only person to go through this, but the rest of them are probably scattered across the state, feeling just as lost as I am.



    Photograph via Wyoming Department of Health

    • C is a writer and advocate interested in prison/criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction and government/cultural criticism. She has studied history/theology with the Third Order of Carmelites and completed degrees in Systematic Theology. She is currently studying law.

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