Mississauga pastor tells her 'big, risky truth,' comes out as transgender to congregation
Junia Joplin hopes her sermon inspires others to feel accepted and hopeful
Junia Joplin internalized three words in her first year of seminary school — tell the truth.
Her professor said it is the most important rule to be guided by when becoming a pastor.
Fifteen years later, she shared that sentiment with parishioners at Mississauga's Lorne Park Baptist Church in a sermon, which was done virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"God has a way of guiding you … to the moment where you can't do anything but speak your big, risky truth, no matter how much trouble it gets you in," Joplin told her congregation on June 14.
The sermon was all about embracing truth. It ended with Joplin sharing hers.
"I'm not just supposed to be just a pastor. I'm supposed to be a woman. Hi, friends. Hi, family. My name is Junia. You can call me June. I am a transgender woman and my pronouns are she and her."
WATCH | Junia Joplin's sermon about speaking your truth:
She says she was a "bundle of nerves" writing the sermon. In the moments before, she was shaking, but then she felt calm and determined. What she was about to say could not go unsaid.
"Regardless of what happens or how people received it, these things, these truths needed to be said," she told CBC Toronto in an interview the week after her sermon.
After she delivered it, her eldest son held her while she cried.
"It was such a tender moment," she said. "There's a sense of release, there's a sense of being kind of liberated from a burden that was so profound."
A life of questions
Joplin grew up in rural North Carolina with her parents, two sisters, a brother, and the Baptist Church. She preached at the church for the first time when she was just 11.
She knew she wanted to become a minister, but she was also dealing with questions about her gender identity — ones she couldn't connect to anything concrete.
"Up until very recently, I would have said that I was just a cisgender guy who had this strange compulsion towards femininity, or envy of women, or just would rather be a woman," she said.
Joplin didn't equate that with being transgender, but in 2018 she began coming out, first to her spouse, and then to a few close friends.
A year later, she told her siblings and earlier this year, her two sons. Days before the sermon, she informed her parents.
She says most people have been very supportive, which helped her prepare for the sermon.
"Before [the sermon], that was probably the scariest thing that I'd ever done because saying that out loud to another human being for the first time ever is just, it's scary," she said.
Joplin knew she was taking a big risk telling her church, but she kept something in mind from Christian author Jen Hatmaker: if you preach a heady sermon, people are moved, but if you preach a vulnerable one, they are set free.
So far, Joplin has received an outpouring of support.
Creating a safe, accepting space
Jasmine Smith, 19, has been a member of the church since she was born and says she's inspired by Joplin's sermon. She's watched it more than once, crying each time.
"As a member of the LGBTQ community I kind of lost touch with faith in the last few years," she said in an interview outside the church. "This is something I think I really needed to hear."
Smith says it can be difficult navigating both worlds — there are LGBTQ people who are against religion, and religious people who frown on the LGBTQ community.
"So many people even in the media or just elsewhere make me question everything and if who I am is OK. And if my pastor can be part of this community, then probably I can too," Smith said.
Joplin moved to Mississauga to become the church's lead pastor in 2014. Stephen Jansz, a former member of the church, was on the hiring committee at the time and says he was instantly drawn to Joplin's progressive nature.
"She was willing to say it like it was. She wasn't sugarcoating it and she was willing to touch on current issues," he said.
Jansz says Joplin's sermon may not only save the life of a transgender person, but is creating a dialogue among people who may not typically discuss LGTBQ issues.
"Ultimately, the finish line is somewhere where there's greater understanding, greater acceptance and we're creating a safe and welcoming space," he said.
Joplin gets emotional when she talks about LGBTQ youth who don't feel accepted, especially by their church.
She points to a study by the University of West Virginia that found the greater importance of religion for LGBTQ young people, the more likely they are to contemplate suicide.
"If I have an opportunity to reach one trans youth and say, 'God loves you just as you are' and that message prevents them from becoming another one of those terrifying and sad statistics, then I'll feel like I am fulfilling my calling as a pastor," Joplin said.
An uncertain future
Joplin hopes to continue in her role as lead pastor of Lorne Park Baptist Church, but that's still up in the air.
The congregation and leadership were surprised by Joplin's announcement and have "expressed love" for her identity as a woman, the church said in a statement.
"We do not know what the future will look like but we want to learn more from June regarding her story. We want to work towards Christian unity with June and her family, as we discern together God's will for our congregation," the statement reads.
Joplin says whatever decision the church makes, she believes it'll be done with grace, compassion and care.
"If I never work another day in the church again for the rest of my life, I'll know that I've done what I was called to do."