This remembrance is generously shared with us by Austen Hartke. As a transgender person of faith, Austen’s greatest passion is helping other trans and gender-non-conforming people see themselves in scripture. His book “Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians,” will be published with Westminster John Knox Press, and released on April 7th, 2018. Let Austen tell the story of how he and Eli met…
I met Eli Roe on an incredibly nerve-wracking day. It was June in Atlanta, and we were both attending a conference put on by The Reformation Project—an organization that educates and advocates for LGBTQ+ inclusion in Christian communities. It was the first time I’d ever seen this many queer Christians gathered in one place, and I’d been asked to speak on two panels in front of this crowd of wonderful people. I’d never done anything like this before, and I remember feeling full of nervous energy, hoping that I wouldn’t say anything stupid or disappoint anyone.
Immediately after the second panel I dashed off the stage and out to the reception area, where I knew there was a water cooler. My mouth was dry and my hands were sweaty, and I was ready to take a minute to just breathe.
But standing next to the stack of plastic cups was a person who looked about my age or a little younger, with eager eyes and a soft smile. They held out their hand to shake mine and said, “Hi, I’m Eli! That was so great.”
I remember shaking Eli’s hand back—both of us going in for a firm but somewhat self-conscious grip—and then fiddling with cups and water while I tried to brush off the complement. He introduced me to his friend who’d traveled with him from Penn State, but what I remember most was the fire in his eyes when he began talking about all the plans he had for their new Christian LGBTQ-inclusive student group. He wanted to begin Bible studies and start having worship services and distribute as much educational information as they could get their hands on, and would I ever consider coming to Penn State to speak?
Eli’s excitement was infectious, and it didn’t feel like it was fueled solely by the conference atmosphere. I’ve been on several trips like this since, and there are times when you find yourself in the middle of making plans with someone, only to wake up suddenly to the grim reality that neither of you will have the time or energy once you get home. But I could tell that Eli meant what he said. He had plans, and he was going to make them a reality.
We talked for a while there, in the atrium, and I learned more about Eli’s story. He told me that he was about a year into his transition, and that his parents were supportive, but that things had been difficult. I remember how happy he was to have folks to talk with about gender diversity in scripture, and how enthusiastic he was about pushing specifically for more dialogue around trans identities.
Eventually our conversation came to an end as the rest of the conference attendees began moving out of the main room in between sessions. We said our nice-to-meet-you’s, and then we moved on too.
I did end up seeing Eli once more that weekend, when the attendees split up for dinner together based on common conversation topics. Unsurprisingly, Eli and I both ended up at the dinner for trans folks, and we sat kitty-corner from each other across a long table filled with about fifteen people. The woman sitting directly across from me bravely shared some of her struggles with mental health issues, and while most of the people around her—myself included—seemed unsure of what to say or how to comfort her, Eli seemed to know. He was such a good listener, and he never interrupted or tried to change the subject. Occasionally, when our new friend would pause or ask a question, Eli would share something about his own battle with depression, and even suggest resources. But he was never pushy about it. He offered helpful suggestions, but it didn’t feel like he was trying to fix a problem or offer one-size-fits-all solutions. I remember that his whole demeanor struck me as very pastoral, in the best sense.
Looking back, I wonder if Eli learned to do this, or if it came naturally to him. I wish I could have known him longer and seen his gifts in action in other contexts. Maybe this tenderness and compassion was something that had been with him for years, but I couldn’t help but think that maybe it was something he cultivated intentionally in response to the negative treatment he’d seen and experienced himself at the hands of religious people. What I saw in him was the flowering of a human being who chose to react with kindness rather than bitterness; who chose to reach out and care for the wounded rather than isolate and protect himself.
Eli and I only talked a couple of times after that weekend, and it was only about six months later that he died, but to say that someone has died is not to say that they are gone. The person who was sitting directly to my left at dinner that night is now my good friend Ben, and we sometimes share our memories of Eli and the weekend that we spent with him. And because of Eli, I was able to eventually go and speak at Penn State with the LGBTQ+ student group he founded, just like he’d planned. He made such a mark on the people around him that his memory has sustained many of us through difficult times, and I still think of him and his enthusiasm often, especially when I feel worn out.
I thought of Eli again this Christmas when I listened to the radio broadcast of the church service “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” from Cambridge, England. My family listens to this broadcast every year, and I always love hearing the way the prayers are read, in an English style that hasn’t changed in decades. There comes a line that reads, “Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.”
And as I listened to those words, “upon another shore and in a greater light,” I thought of my friend Eli Roe, who feels separated from us only by a sea that we can’t yet cross, but on a shore which will welcome us all someday. At times the gap between us seems long, and at other times no more than a step away, but no matter the distance, his presence still shines in our lives, and for that I am truly grateful.