The core missions of the United Church of Christ denomination are doing justice, seeking peace, building community, championing equality, and fostering inclusivity, which seem to mesh seamlessly with the Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson’s calling as a minister.
New Bedford’s Pilgrim United Church of Christ recently installed Rev. Anderson as its pastor.
She is only the second openly transgender person to lead a New Bedford church, following the Rev. Paul Langston-Daley, who became the minister of the First Unitarian Church on Union Street in September 2012. Rev. Anderson has served the parish as interim minister since April 2021; the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her official installation until this Oct. 16.
An educator, counselor, and social activist, Rev. Anderson was raised in Cranston, R.I., and lives in Providence. She holds a master’s degree in religious studies from Providence College and a doctor of ministry degree from Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia.
For nearly 13 years, until January 2020, the pastor was executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. Previously, she served as pastor for congregations in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts — including her first post, in Dartmouth.
New Bedford Light: In announcing your upcoming installation as settled minister of Pilgrim United, a church leader said “In the year and a half that she has been with us as an interim minister, she has become our pastor who just happens to be transgender.” Is that your wish for every LBGTQ+ person, that their sexual orientation or gender identity just be considered one facet of their being, like their profession, having blond hair, or being athletic, rather than the defining one?
Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson: Ultimately, I think all of us would hope that the fact that we’re transgender or gay or lesbian or nonbinary, would be just as you said, like hair color, whatever. The reason we’re emphasizing [that I am a transgender pastor] now is for two reasons.
One is that within the Christian church, there are a fair number of people — and they are loud — who see our entire LGBTQ+ community as totally sinful and contrary to God’s design. Because they are so loud and because we have an increasing number of people who either no longer attend church or have never attended church, they tend to — I think not unfairly — make an assumption that Christian means anti-LGBTQ+. In fact, I, along with an increasing number of my colleagues, hesitate to use the term Christian very much unless we can really contextualize it. …
What I’m emphasizing here, and the congregation’s comfortable with emphasizing, is the fact that they have called a transgender pastor. And part of that is to say: “Hey, this is a safe place for folks in the LGBTQ+ community, so safe that this congregation not only says you can come and sit in the pews, but we’ll even call you as pastor.”
Sign up for our free newsletter
NBL: Coming from the Baptist faith, what drew you to the United Church of Christ denomination?
DA: Most of my background was with the American Baptist Churches USA, which is more progressive than many Baptist groups. It’s not the most progressive; the most progressive is the Alliance of Baptists. The Alliance of Baptists is a fairly small group, and they have one or two churches — maybe several — churches in New England, but not many.
My theology is fairly eclectic and broad. And I would have been able to fit in the Alliance and that would have been OK. I wasn’t about to be kicked out of the American Baptist [Churches]. My credentials are still good with the American Baptist. In fact, I am on the national board for the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.
But all along I wanted to finish my career in a local parish. This is my first love. You know, I say to folks, not so jokingly, that if you cut me, I bleed pastor.
And so I knew that if I just wanted to attend church, there would be plenty of American Baptist Churches I could probably attend, but there weren’t so many that would call me as pastor.
For 13 years, I was the executive for the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. One of our most supportive denominations was the United Church of Christ. I became very familiar with the United Church of Christ, and I knew that if I had my credentials recognized there, there was a decent likelihood there would be a congregation that would be willing to call me.
It took about a year, but I had my credentials recognized by the United Church of Christ, and then when it came time for me to start looking for a church, there were several possibilities. But this one became the one, and I’m so glad.
I love being here. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had some wonderful congregations and done some other wonderful things with Christian organizations as part of my career. But I have never loved a church as much as I have fallen in love with this church. This is really a special place. It really is.
NBL: Americans’ membership in houses of worship continues to decline. In 2020, it dropped below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade polling record. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 70% in 1999. COVID shutdowns have exacerbated the trend. How can a church try to reverse it?
DA: In 1958, 52% of America identified with a mainline Protestant denomination. By 2000, that number was down to 16%. It’s bounced back to 19% in the last couple of years, but you know, it’s a big drop. In the 1950s and ’60s, if you were a community leader, if you were a professional or executive, you went to church. That’s what was expected of you, whether it had any particular meaning to you personally or not. You went to church, and church kind of became a comfortable place and a place that didn’t rock too many boats. I mean, in the ’60s, there was some rocking, but that settled down pretty quickly.
So I think there’s a couple of things at play here. One is people who went to church because it was the societal expectation. That societal expectation is going away, so they’ve gone away. Some people still come because it’s what they always did. It’s out of habit.
Younger people are coming because they’re looking for something that has meaning. And I believe that the gospel is both personally fulfilling and meaningful, but also has a much broader message for society. …
I think part of the reason that the church [attendance] has declined … is because I believe the church has not been as faithful as it should have been … about the broader implications of the gospel in society [and the moral issues]. … I think the more we [talk about that], the more there will be some people who will say, “Yes, this is what I need in my life, this is what I want to commit my life to, that’s why I want to be there.”
NBL: Running against a 35-year incumbent, you lost your bid for a state Senate seat in Rhode Island in the September primary. If elected, you would have been the state’s first openly transgender senator. How does your calling as a minister inform your political aspirations?
DA: For me — and this is where my Baptist roots are going to come in — Roger Williams [founder of Providence Plantations and of the First Baptist Church in America], was probably one of the most radical thinkers America has ever known, when in the early part of the 17th century, he spoke about separation of church and state. Virtually every other state, except … Pennsylvania, pretty much had an established religious order. [It’s] part of the reason people here in Massachusetts were happy to see him shuffle on down the road [to Rhode Island].
I think that means each of us is our own moral agent, and that the state cannot make moral decisions for us about our own health care, and how our sense of being and who we are and our own sense of spirituality, however we might define that — or no spirituality, if we don’t see that as part of our mix, right? … [When] the state with a sledgehammer tries to make a moral decision for individuals that ought to be an individual decision, for me that is a deeply spiritual issue coming out of my profound sense of the separation of church and state.
The issue for me is not abortion. The issue for me is who makes the moral choice about abortion? Does the state make that choice for you? Or do you make that moral choice about your health and about all the other complexities that are in your life with your medical professional? That is a spiritual decision, whether someone defines it that way or not. In my view, that is a spiritual decision. And that is a decision that has to be made by each individual. …
It’s very clear in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as carried forward into the Gospels that whenever power is concentrated into a very small group of people, that power becomes corrupted and other people are affected by that. That is very much Jesus’ story … So my theology very much informs my political perspective.
NBL: What are the particular challenges of leading an inner-city church?
DA: I think one of the challenges is being real to people who surround us. We started a feeding program a number of years ago [Mercy Meals and More]. It has since become its own nonprofit. We still provide the space and a number of volunteers. Six days a week, from 6:30 to 7:30, there’s a full hot breakfast buffet available to anybody who shows up at the door. … We’re doing Guns for Groceries [exchange program] here too. We’re hosting that as well.
So we are surrounded by a number of the issues that trouble urban centers in the United States. We’re part of that. We have to be a little more security conscious. …
For me, personally — this is just me, OK? I’ve had it with suburbia. That’s where a lot of my ministry has been. Wonderful, great people there. This is where I want to be. I chose to move to a city [Providence]. I want to live in a city where there’s diverse populations, and where there are real issues that people are struggling with and not pretending that these issues don’t exist. I mean, these issues exist in other places too, but they pretend they don’t. Here, you can’t ignore them. It’s very, very real.
NBL: The UCC denomination and the New Bedford church itself have a long history of engaging with social issues and embracing those on society’s margins. In 1895, Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, spoke at Pilgrim United. The church recently commissioned a mural to celebrate the event. Please tell me more about that.
DA: A woman named Alice Sherman, a matriarch of the church, had … discovered in going through some of our [archived] newsletters that in 1895, Booker T. Washington was here. And she thought, “We’ve got to do something about that.” [Sherman passed away in May 2021]. Then a woman in the church who teaches at UMass Dartmouth, Michele DeMary, picked it up and has raised money from within the community. We’ve engaged the community in helping us … the New Bedford Historical Society, the NAACP. We have hired Eden Soares, who is a wonderful local artist and has done several murals in the city already.
[Plans call for the mural to be mounted next spring on the south face of the Pilgrim United Church Home, the building across from the church.]
We want to start working with some of these local community groups on some educational components to go around that. … We’re playing with ideas about when this mural does go up, what other kinds of educational experiences can we — meaning the whole community, not just our church — be engaged in that might be a catalyst to spark a conversation about things that are very relevant and that are very much a part of what this church is about. That will get us into some social justice issues, some Black Lives Matter issues, some issues regarding law enforcement, economic justice, housing, a whole list of things, right? How do we go about making a difference?
NBL: LGBTQ+ teens in the United States are at an increased risk of suicide. Does belonging to a loving, accepting church make a difference for them?
DA: One of the things that we found out recently — we’ve known anecdotally for quite a while, but we’ve gotten some nice statistical data from the Trevor Project in a survey that they did in 2020. And we learned a couple of things. One of the things we learned was that these laws that are trying to deny the reality of the transgender experience are actually driving up the attempted suicide rates … for young people who were transgender or non-binary, it was pushing up to 53%. But here’s the other thing that they found in that survey: That where young people see other people in society supporting them, affirming their experience, that they then have the ability to deal with their own internal struggles better and do not see suicide as the option that they might see without that kind of support. So there’s not only anecdotal, but there is statistical evidence that the more young people see support from the broader community, the better off they are with dealing with their own internal issues and really helping to discover who they authentically are.
Pilgrim United Church of Christ is at 635 Purchase St. in downtown New Bedford. For more information, visit https://www.pilgrimuccnb.org/ or call (508) 997-9086.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thank you to our sponsors
Founding benefactors: Irwin and Joan Jacobs, Mary and Jim Ottaway