RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For many gays and lesbians, church is now a far more welcoming place than it used to be. But many still - many churches still condemn transgender people. And for trans people looking to find a congregation, the search can be intimidating. A congregation in Phoenix is working to change that by focusing on the everyday needs of its members, many of whom are homeless trans youth. As Stina Sieg of members station KJZZ explains, it starts with dinner.
STINA SIEG, BYLINE: It's always free - some dishes homemade, some store-bought, all donated. Tonight, before everyone sits down to nachos and vegan pizza, they stand in a circle around a big, wooden table.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
SIEG: Words that would sound familiar at many churches - followed by some that don't.
JEFFREY DIRRIM: This is toilet paper week.
SIEG: This congregation is called Rebel and Divine, and founding pastor, Jeffrey Dirrim, is gesturing to countless toilet paper rolls slightly obscuring a cross on the table.
DIRRIM: There's no shame. There's no judgment. It's here to help. We're about health and wholeness. If you need toilet paper, we have toilet paper.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)
SIEG: Rebel and Divine isn't just a congregation, but a mission to reach at-risk youth. It grew out of a Christmas shoe drive years ago and now, under the umbrella of the United Church of Christ, serves about 200 attendees a month - people in their mid-teens in mid-20s, gay and lesbian kids, homeless kids and especially transgender kids - people often unwelcome at other creations. Katrinna Alexandros, stepping away from the fray, says until she started attending, she didn't know she could be friends with Christians.
KATRINNA ALEXANDROS: And my whole life, it's just been - Christians are the people that hurt everyone, so - and here, it's not.
SIEG: Alexandros was raised a strict Southern Baptist - and a boy - in a conservative religious town in rural Kentucky. At 9, she realized she was trans. And though she never officially told her late mother, she says her mom always knew. But Alexandros felt it was religion that kept her mother from fully embracing who Alexandros was. Now, as a 23-year-old Wiccan, Rebel and Divine is the only church she can imagine herself attending.
ALEXANDROS: There's no other place like it (laughter). It is a place that you can be yourself and get help and help others.
SIEG: There are no readings from the Bible tonight and no mention of the name Jesus, but there is a reliable, consistent togetherness. Back in the food line, Sydney Harrison fills a plate. Harrison doesn't identify as male or female and uses the pronoun they. They say Rebel and Divine gives them something in their lives they can always count on. Harrison comes here both for basic supplies like toothpaste and for human connection.
SYDNEY HARRISON: Just coming in and getting hugs from everyone is - like, does a big difference for me.
SIEG: The 24-year-old is very connected to their mom but says many here aren't so lucky. Some of the young people here ran away from home. Others were kicked out.
HARRISON: We're there for each other, and we love each other. Even as unconventional as we might be or as crazy or hectic as it might be, we're still family at the end of the day.
SIEG: Rebel and Divine is a family these young people are choosing, where they support each other and where Pastor Jeffrey Dirrim hopes they always feel safe.
When everyone's done eating, Dirrim asks folks to quiet down.
DIRRIM: Know that you are blessed, that you are loved and that you are never, ever alone.
SIEG: And then Dirrim reminds them that, no matter what, they are worthy.
DIRRIM: And if anyone has told you otherwise, they were wrong. You are. And if you question that, come talk to me.
SIEG: And with that, the congregation heads out, many of the kids with heaping plates of leftovers. It's the only moment Dirrim has had to rest all night and reflect on what this place is creating every week.
DIRRIM: We broke the bread. We shared the cup tonight. We had community that came together with a family of choice, and we talked about hope and love and joy. And many who come in here wounded still walked out of here tonight with smiles on their faces, and that is church to me.
SIEG: It's an ancient pattern of Christian worship. People gathered, shared a word of grace and a meal. And then Dirrim sent them back out into the world with a blessing. For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg in Phoenix.
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