The Rev. Christe Lunsford knew from a young age they had a spiritual calling.
After growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Lunsford, now 55, began seminary preparatory school at 19 years old. But when they came out as transgender, they were met with opposition that pushed them away from organized religion entirely.
Over 20 years later, they sold their Honda 1300R motorcycle to afford to return to seminary and become a minister in Unitarian Universalism, a religious community that draws from spiritual and prophetic teachings of all world religions.
“There’s always been a spiritual calling,” Lunsford said. “I’ve always had a very spiritual personality and practice for myself and sometimes in small communities.”
Their first dabble back into organized religion was with the Unity Christian church, but the Christian-centric faith did not fit their needs. In their 40s, their long-term partner Dianna Ott, who is now 68, invited them to join Unitarian Universalism (UU).
The two met in 2007 during an LGBTQ+ event, and Ott asked Lunsford for their contact information. After that, the two emailed for months as they got to know each other. Despite not looking for a long-term relationship, Ott quickly fell in love. Ott and Lunsford now live together with their Australian shepherd, Blue.
“Like many people, Christe had never even heard about Unitarian Universalism, so it took some courage to walk through those doors the first time,” Ott said. “I think they were prepared to be unimpressed.”
In the beginning, Lunsford challenged Unitarian Universalism. They came to Sunday services with dyed, punk-styled hair, showed their tattoos and presented an attitude that said, “Tell me to leave.”
“I was just greeted with open arms and not a pushed response but ‘We hope to see you again,’” Lunsford said. “If they pushed, I probably would have walked away again for a while, but they were fine. Nobody was shocked.”
When the Unitarian community did not shy away from them, Lunsford saw an opportunity to both live authentically and practice their faith.
“This is what I’ve always dreamed of,” they said. “Being in a community that could welcome my fullness of identity.”
After graduating from seminary in 2018, they spent a year interning in ministry with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, Illinois before being called to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville through a match-making process that pairs ministers with congregations.
Before Lunsford started at the Gainesville fellowship, there had only been one settled ministry that was successful for more than three years.
“In the Unitarian Universalist world, the southern region is a hard region to match for people because people have their thoughts about the south,” they said. “Well, I grew up in the south, so I was like, ‘I’ve got no problems going to the south,’ so the south became part of my major search ground.”
Lunsford’s first choice of congregation was the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville. After a week-long interview process and a congressional vote, the congregation’s first choice of minister was Lunsford. As a newly ordained minister, Lunsford moved to Gainesville the weekend of July 4, 2019, and officially started the job the following month.
“I never would have imagined myself as a minister’s wife but here we are,” Ott said. “I love seeing Christe in the pulpit.”
Since starting in Gainesville’s fellowship, Lunsford developed a covenant centered around respecting and valuing all people, celebrating joys and supporting people in times of sorrow. The congregation works as a collective to make decisions and constantly adapts its beliefs to new ideas in changing times.
While Unitarian Universalism is not centered around any specific religious beliefs, Lunsford has practiced Paganism for decades, even when they considered themself a Christian. Lunsford said they resonate with the worship practices of the old church right before Christianity, and they also explore Buddhist practices through meditation.
In doing so, they worship with the Unitarian Universalist group Transgender Religious Professionals Together. The community of religious professionals comes together to dismantle oppression within and outside of Unitarian Universalism.
“In those communities, I often am worshiping with folks who are either leaving congregations or never stepped foot in a congregation because they’re primarily marginalized identities that are often misunderstood in their ritual practice,” Lunsford said.
Lunsford uses their role as a faith leader to educate and foster a positive environment for the future. The brave space they create in the Gainesville fellowship does not mean no one will be hurt, but they open the space to be more understanding of unique identities within religion.
“I don’t think any place in the world is safe, even within our own queer communities, our own trans communities,” Lunsford said. “It’s never fully safe. It’s a lot braver, it’s a lot safer. But I prefer brave space that we’re gonna come in knowing that there are ways to covenant, there are ways to break covenant, and we come back. We stay at the table.”
When Lunsford stands in the pulpit on Sundays, they give the congregation a description of themself so that those listening from home and anyone with low vision can picture them. They also give a positionality statement, a description of their identities within society, where they acknowledge their own privilege, and lack thereof, within the congregation.
Lunsford is able-bodied, white and of European descent, with graying hair and a newly-grown beard, and electric blue glasses. They wear a blue and white floral stole that was crafted by their mother from a family heirloom for their ordination.
They tell the congregants their pronouns and that they are a trans, nonbinary person, an identity that challenges the binary social systems in place.
While they do not tell the congregation, Lunsford finds themself visiting art and historical museums in their spare time. They love trying new food and interesting restaurants, and they love Marvel and reimaged historical dramas — particularly when steampunked, a unique style that combines Victorian-era aesthetics with technological science fiction.
Since starting at the congregation, they have hosted four discussions as part of a 6-week-long transgender inclusion in congregations class to create an environment for congregants to break down preconceptions around identity.
“Don’t try to imagine what it’s like to have my identity, ask me what it’s like to have my identity,” Lunsford said. “That’s exhausting, but I’d rather that ask come of me than of somebody’s child or grandchild when they’re actually struggling with their identities.”
Hazel Hazlett, 70, joined the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville five years ago after she realized her religious beliefs no longer aligned with the Presbyterian church’s teachings. Since then, she has attended three sessions of “Transforming Hearts Collective,” the trans education class at the fellowship, to learn about gender and sexuality.
“Reverend Christe is so open about being trans that it makes it so easy to ask questions,” she said.
When Hazlett was camping in Georgia with her family last year, she overheard her 9-year-old granddaughter coming to terms with her sexuality. When her granddaughter noticed that her family heard her speaking out loud, she turned to Hazlett and asked: “Nanners, will you still love me?”
“I said, ‘What? Yes! Yes, we will still love you. Love is love. Love whoever you want to love,’” she said. “That class helped me be able to say that.”
Through these hard and personal conversations, Lunsford hopes to be a resource for younger generations.
“People are gonna make mistakes, they’re gonna say things that are hurtful,” Lunsford said. “And we’re a covenantal community where you can call on right relations to actually say, ‘This thing hurt me, and I would like to talk about it.’”
In addition to helping people covenant to do better, they have brought up conversations around the anti-gay and anti-trans political climate.
There have been 344 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced by the legislatures and statehouses this year. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has continued this trend by introducing the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and has opposed gender-affirming medical care for minors as well as trans people in sports.
“I’m gonna stand, and have stood, in front of my congregation and say, ‘Now this is not okay that Florida is bringing up these trans hate bills,’” Lunsford said. “‘You realize I may not be able to stay in the state, and I’m locationally much safer than our children, and I am much safer than people of color. I have all these privileges, and it is still not safe for me.’”
Unitarian Universalism has a history of progressive views around human rights and social justice. In 1984, it was one of the first religious groups to marry LGBTQ+ couples.
Unitarian Universalist congregations compile principles and purposes to better represent their congregants. The fellowship of Gainesville believes in inherent worth and dignity.
“The culture of Florida has made it so that some of the churches can’t be open and affirming as they might like to be,” Lunsford said. “And they can’t certainly publicly say they’re open and affirming.”
At a recent Sunday service, the unique practice of Unitarians and Lunsford’s own beliefs were in full celebration through the month’s Touchstone theme: joy.
From toddlers in the religious education youth class to older adults who have been part of the fellowship for decades, the congregation brought together a diverse group centered around togetherness and community.
A communal water bowl that represented the love and support of the community sat in the center of the congregation, open to congregants to drop a stone in.
While amplifying the mutual aid that comes with community, the fellowship implements a robust social justice team to work on initiatives in focus groups such as poverty and housing, environmental justice, race and health care.
“A main focus of Unitarian Universalists is social justice,” said Alice Primack, 83, who has been co-chair of the social justice council for the past 20 years. “The church is where we study and learn about working with others for justice for all, and where we can put into practice what we believe.”
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, 78, was involved in the congregation’s social justice program and co-chaired the racial justice task force until she had to step back last summer due to time commitments from other initiatives.
Simmons was involved with the congregation’s leadership team for five years, and she has a long history of activism in peace work, growing up in the Jim Crow south and protesting the Vietnam War. She lived in Memphis during racial segregation and moved to Atlanta to attend Spelman College during the height of the sit-in movement.
“I got involved with a college there in Atlanta, sitting in, going to jail, being beaten, all that we had to go through,” she said.
In her role with the congregation, she helped people register to vote, and she joined a Gainesville initiative to document the lynching of Black people across Alachua County. She also helped co-sponsor a bus trip to Montgomery’s legacy museum.
Simmons said Lunsford is committed to social justice work, making them fit in well with the congregation.
“(Lunsford is) very knowledgeable, experienced on many issues, including the spiritual issues which are very important for a religious group,” she said.
Debra Neill-Mareci, a retired medical illustrator in her early 70s, joined the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville over 25 years ago when her daughter started singing in the congregation’s choir. Neill-Mareci and her husband both left the Christian tradition in their early 20s before they met.
“We value the Christian traditions, but it didn’t completely offer a wider point of view,” she said. “There are wonderful aspects to the Christian religion, but there are problematic ones if you don’t follow all the creedal strictures of that religion, at that time especially.”
When the couple started going to the congregation to support their daughter, they realized the religious approach mirrored their own worldviews and beliefs: do good, be a kind person and help others. They watched as the congregation cycled through ministers and noted how each of them brought a different emphasis that spoke to them.
“Reverend Christe is very much part of the bigger denominational change of putting more and more focus on social justice,” Neill-Mareci said. “I do feel there’s a lot of spirituality and meaning and worship in the truest sense of the word worship.”
Since starting as a minister, Lunsford has prioritized bringing people of various backgrounds and faiths together to form unique, transformative relationships and experiences. No matter what someone is going through, Lunsford hopes to show them they are not alone.
“However you believe, in a God or no God at all, there is something to building community, and being able to sit still with one another and deeply listen to one another, to something outside ourselves,” they said.