From Christendom to Freedom by Jonathon Thunderword

I’ve always said that OtherWise Engaged Publishing is not limited to the OtherWise Christian brand. It is a multi-tradition publishing operation for projects from OtherWise-gendered folk that are in alignment with our values. Easy to say, but the first four books were pretty specifically Christian, including the first two OtherWise Reflection Guides. Granted.

OtherWise Christian 2: Stories of Resistance began to offer some more diverse perspectives. However, we have more explicitly turned that corner with From Christendom to Freedom: Journey-Making with a Black Transgender Elder (2020) by Jonathon Thunderword.

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I first met Jonathon at a Fellowship of Affirming Ministries gathering in 2008. Under Bishop Yvette Flunder’s direction, we co-led (with others) a workshop on transgender experience. Little did I know then how either of our lives would unfold.

Like Appendix C in OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation (2019), Jonathon talks about Christendom as something different from the Jesus Movement. Christendom is what happened with the Jesus Movement got deeply entangled with Empire. While it touches on Jonathon’s experiences (pro and con) in Christian community, this is a decidedly post-Christian memoir.

As he puts it, Jonathon “followed Jesus into Judaism” and shares some of that journey, but he does not stop there. Jonathon reflects on early years in the Nation of Islam as well as his experiences listening to non-believers. I learned a lot more about his experience with Amma and Hindu tradition in his book than I ever did in conversation around conferences we attended together.

I know that some of the memories Jonathon dredged up working on this book were painful for him. While each section is quite short, I should offer trigger-warnings for sexual abuse by religious leaders, as well as references to sex work, use of illegal substances, and sexism/misogyny. Of course, these experiences are offered in a reflective context which explores them with sensitivity.

Jonathon does not pull any punches in talking about his experience as a Black man, either. The image that opens his Introduction is more than uncomfortable, but it is offered with deliberate intent. He frequently reflects on how racial dynamics impacted his faith journey(s). I found his candid revelations about struggling with contemplative practices particularly insightful, as he embraces both the search for stillness and African-American cultural influences.

So, many of the patterns of community engagement among African-Americans emphasize call and response between the congregation and a leader in ways that do not require widespread access to books, paper, or even literacy. These patterns are also connected to our roots in Africa, which predate the written word or modern educational standards. (Chapter 8: Cultivating Quiet)

Religion is never simply one thing. It is race and gender and culture and teaching and mystical experience and physical practice and community and individual discernment and more. Jonathon manages to speak to these dynamics (and more) in a brief and accessible way, based in anecdotes from his personal adventures in religious experience.

Each chapter includes between four and six short sections. Each section is followed by a reflection question. This dynamic turns his spiritual auto-biography into a kind of workbook, which invites the reader to reflect on their own preferences and experiences. Because of his long journey and deep questions, the core of From Christendom to Freedom is not just another transgender memoir, but an an object lesson in what he calls “Finding Another Right Road Authentically and Holistically.”

The Afterword points explicitly to Jonathon’s Trans-Anointing ministry which supports people of trans experience to claim their own spiritual journeys, as he encourages spiritual independence for each of us as we live out our own truth.

I am the editor and publisher of From Christendom to Freedom: Journey-Making with a Black Transgender Elder, so, naturally, I am a fan! More importantly, I want to say what an honor and a privilege is has been to work with Jonathon (and Triptta) in birthing this project.

Anyhow, much of Jonathon’s front and back “matter” is available online on the OtherWise Engaged website: Table of Contents, Foreword by the Rev Monica Joy Cross, Preface, Introduction, Afterword, Works Cited (or Recommended). Please take a look!

While this offering is not the first in a formal series, it is still the first of a kind that you can expect more of in the OtherWise Engaged Publishing catalog. Bobbi Taylor and KimiFloyd are each also working on book projects that will be spiritual autobiographies drawing on their own experiences navigating multiple cultural/spiritual influences. Sign up for updates from OtherWise Engaged Publishing to hear about what is next!

Compiled by Mx Chris Paige on May 4, 2020.