Her transformation at church was slow but noticeable.
She let her wavy hair grow out, and occasionally allowed herself to replace the transparent nail polish she wore on her manicured hands with a more vivid pink. Her eyebrows were thinner and more defined, and her cheeks seemed rosier, drawing puzzled looks from congregants at the church she had led for 15 years.
She was known as Peter Strand then, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ridgefield Park. A married man and the father of two.
But after a year of hormone replacement therapy, Strand, who now uses the name Petra, decided in April 2015 to let the congregation know what she had known for some time. She was a woman.
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She addressed a four-page letter to the members of her church to explain the physical changes they may have noticed. She invited them to a meeting after a Sunday service, where she offered to talk to them about her transition.
And she leaned on her faith to get her through.
“My struggle then was how to face the world, not knowing how others would react, and feeling ashamed and humiliated in their eyes,” Strand, a Teaneck resident, recalled. “I found the courage to do so from my prayer-life, from my stronger relationship to Christ.”
At the meeting, there was silence as Strand poured her heart out, one former member of the church recalled.
“It had to be terribly emotional for him,” said Rose Saputo, a former elder at the church who, like others, still has a hard time using the female pronoun when she refers to Strand. “I felt that it had to be the hardest thing he had ever done in his life, telling his congregation.”
Most members were supportive, Strand said. Many said they weren’t surprised. “They asked why it took so long,” she said.
Others, though, pushed back, saying Strand’s transition was an affront to family values.
That response, Saputo said, may have contributed to Strand’s departure from the church just a few months later.
“I just felt that he got a raw deal,” Saputo said.
Strand, who stresses that the church’s finances played a role in her decision to leave, is now going through the discernment process in the Episcopal Church, a first step toward her goal of becoming ordained as a priest. She also occasionally preaches at other churches as a guest.
Across the country, quietly and sometimes more publicly, religious leaders have come forward as transgender in Christian and Jewish denominations.
One of the first was the Rev. Erin Swenson, who successfully fought to retain her ordination in the Presbyterian Church of the United States in 1996. “It’s surprising to me that it is still surprising when I tell people that I was the first openly transgender person to have her ordination upheld through my gender transition, and that it happened in the 1990s and it happened in Georgia,” Swenson said.
It’s unclear how many transgender people are serving as clergy members in the United States, but Swenson said their numbers remain modest. “It’s too difficult, it’s too hard for people to go through,” she said.
Most denominations don’t have policies prohibiting transgender people from being ordained, but the cultural and political realities can make it difficult, said Chris Paige, executive director of Transfaith, a national organization led by transgender people that focuses on faith and spirituality.
“There are a lot of political realities about the sort of respectability politics . and what folks perceive as appropriate,” Paige said.
The Episcopal Church approved the ordination of transgender priests in 2012, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ordained its first transgender minister in 2015. Transgender people serve in the clergy of the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church.
Even where there are policies allowing transgender clergy members to serve, in the end, it’s how members of a congregation feel about the issue that ultimately determines whether transgender clergy members are able to stay and continue their religious work, Paige said.
“It can be a shock to folks’ system, and some congregations are more ready to adapt, than others,” Paige said. “Even in the Episcopal Church, where there are explicit non-discriminatory policies, there have been examples of folks who have transitioned in a church where they were successful clergy functioning in the role, and the church just wouldn’t have them.”
As long as Strand can remember, she has identified more closely with women than men, and as a child wished she had been born a girl. She always felt different, but the thought of changing her gender hadn’t crossed her mind.
“It took a long time to sort things out, it took a really long time,” said Strand, 60. “Inwardly I felt one way; outwardly I’m living another role. I’m always living this role, and was just trying to do the best I could.”
Growing up, she was not familiar with the word “transgender.” She said she was motherly toward others and became interested in the Bible and Jesus at a young age.
“Spirituality gave me a safe haven so I didn’t have to compete with other men like you do in sports or you do in politics,” she said. “It was a safe haven for me because there I could be who I was without having to pretend.”
In 2010, she said, she began to see books about people who had changed genders. The books fascinated her and spurred her to do some research.
“I didn’t know it was possible,” she said. “Then I started to look at more clinical type books, I wanted to read what therapists said . and the more I read, the more it described what I was feeling.”
Strand, who was married at the time, decided she needed to see a therapist who could help her understand and resolve what she was feeling.
“I knew I wanted to talk to a professional and find out if I was crazy,” she said.
After meeting with the therapist in December 2013, Strand said her suspicions were confirmed. She was transgender.
“It was like everything fell into place,” Strand said. “My understanding is that I was in denial. My stereotypes of a transgender person was like everybody else’s. I knew I wasn’t gay, I knew I wasn’t into cross dressing or any of that stuff. So when I began to understand it, it was like, ‘Oh, so the stereotypes had to break down.’”
Once she accepted that she was transgender she said she felt free to be stronger in her faith and closer to Jesus.
“I am who I am, but my inner gender and my outer gender are in contradiction,” she said. “I’ve been female; that is who I have always been.”
Coming to terms with this was hard enough. Going public with it had a cost. It caused tensions with some members of her family, and it cost her her marriage.
Strand began hormone therapy around Easter in 2014. She pierced her ears, and the hair on her face and arms began to disappear. She didn’t tell the members of her congregation, though some started to notice the changes.
“The mannerisms to me seemed a little more different,” said Arleen von Salzen, a longtime member of the First Presbyterian Church who, like Rose Saputo, left after Strand’s departure. “One Sunday, we had church service I noticed the nail polish, pink, but I didn’t notice any makeup. But the following week there may have been a lipstick, and maybe a purse, a more feminine purse.”
During the week, while Strand worked part-time at REI, the outdoor supply and camping store in Paramus, her co-workers encouraged her to live her truth. At the store, she wore blouses and makeup, she recalled. Sometimes the nail polish she wore during the week would stay on through the weekend.
“At church I was presenting as a man, so it was crazy,” Strand said, noting that it was always possible that one of her congregants could walk into the store and see her there dressed as a woman. “It was very hard, the way I did it. It was basically two steps. I came out at the store, and then at the church.”
Strand said she had been taking hormones for nearly a year before she decided to tell the members of her church. She wrote the letter detailing “the long, painful, joyous, happy and dizzying road of transition,” had it translated into Spanish and mailed copies to members of the church community.
“Some may wonder why it has taken so long for me to ‘come out,’” she wrote. “The fact is, I had to come out to myself before I could come out to others, and this has taken a lifetime. Others are astonished at how fast I am now emerging. I am too. It has all been there hiding from view, dying to blossom, waiting only for my permission.”
“When I read the letter it’s like, oh, that answers a lot of questions,” von Salzen recalled. “It’s like, the door opens, and I said, you know what, I’m not surprised.”
“And how proud you are of him, of her, to do that, not knowing what reaction you are going to have with the people you have been with for how many years,”von Salzen said, adding that she later gave some of her blouses to Strand. “I just think what a brave and wonderful thing that he did.”
Mary Woletz, another former member of the church who attended one of the meetings that Strand called to discuss her transition, said her initial reaction was, “Really?” But she said she never considered turning away from her pastor.
Strand said she encountered the strongest resistance from some Spanish-speaking members of the church who she said accused her of “undermining family values” and of “disrespecting God’s creation.”
Her answer was that she was living her life the way God intended.
“By transitioning I am being more faithful to the way God made me, this is the way God made me, the way I am now,” she said. “Yes, I have to take medicine, but other people do, too. I now am much more natural, and I’m not changing it, I’m accepting God’s creation.”
Strand left the Ridgefield Park church in July 2015, three months after she announced that she was transgender. Since then she has served as a guest preacher at the First Presbyterian Church of Passaic, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Teaneck and other churches.
Strand said she left Ridgefield Park largely because the church had struggled for years financially and couldn’t afford to pay a pastor any longer. Years earlier, she said, she had reduced her hours to part-time to save the church some money, and applied for the job at REI.
Congregants though said that, even as a part-time pastor, Strand continued to give much of her time to the church.
“When things were difficult financially, Pastor Strand went out of his way to accommodate that,” said Woletz, 88, of Leonia. “While on paper he was part-time, he was giving us his full time.”
Strand, a Franciscan and a member of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans, had led Sunday service and bible classes at the First Presbyterian Church of Ridgefield Park since 2000. She also served as pastor for the Christ Lutheran Church of Ridgefield Park from 2000 to 2004 before shifting her focus to the Presbyterian church full time.
Woletz said she was drawn to Strand as a preacher, and described her as “grounded” in her beliefs and with a laid-back personality.
“His intelligence is incredible, he is very knowledgeable and has a nice way of presenting himself,” Woletz said. “You got to know him, Peter was our friend as well as our pastor”
Having turned to the Episcopal Church, Strand said she has embarked on the process of discernment, which will help her and the leaders of her church determine what her calling is within it. In the meantime, she said that she would like to return to preaching on a regular basis.
That’s what she did in August, a day after a gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent. Strand stood in front of about two dozen people at the First Presbyterian Church of Passaic, offering words of comfort and reminding congregants to rely on their faith when the world seems chaotic or overwhelming. And, she said, they should always be kind to those who are different.
“When he says do not fear, it’s because he is here with us, taking care of us. Do not fear is the central message that Jesus has for us; do not be afraid, I am with you,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to embrace the transgender person, the gay person, do not be afraid to embrace the Muslim, the black person, the Mexican, whoever it is that is being ostracized by the powers that be, or by mobs who have organized themselves.”
When Strand left the church, it was a great loss, Woletz said.
“There is so much there as a preacher and a pastor,” she said. “The type of person Petra is there is so much there to offer.”