July 28, 2020
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Gods And Maidens

She's of Indian extraction, she's gay and she's a church rector. Winnie's story.

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Gods And Maidens
Robert Hirschfield
Gods And Maidens
A Different Beat
  • Only 37, Winnie Varghese has been appointed as rector of St Marks In-the-Bowery, an Episcopalian Church.
  • She's gay, works for gay rights. The Episcopal Church passed a resolution in 1976 declaring gay and lesbian people as "beloved of God".
  • Her idea of spirituality: It's who we are on this earth, and how we treat each other on this planet.


Had she walked through the old St Marks In-The-Bowery Church graveyard on March 1, 2009, when she became the first woman of colour/Indian/lesbian rector of her church, Reverend Winnie Varghese might have wondered, "What would the dead think?" There in the graveyard, the bones of some of New York's most prominent Episcopalians rest beneath the square, flattened stones: Daniel Tompkins, the sixth vice-president of the United States; Peter Stuyvesant, the crotchety, 17th century Dutch colonial governor of New York. Varghese's father, a Christian Gandhian who took part in India's freedom struggle, was an accountant from Kerala, her mother a nurse from the same state.

The Episcopal Church is a liberal church, theologically and socially. In 1976, at its general convention, it passed a resolution declaring that gay and lesbian people are "beloved of God." Yet the slender, 37-year-old woman's ironic smile tells you that she knows she is one of society's marginals even as she occupies the highest position in the oldest site of continuous worship in New York. As an American, she is a radical in a conservative country. As an Indian-American, her sexuality is not accepted by her community in general, and her parents in particular. Her father is disappointed, bewildered, by her revolt against sexual conformity. Her mother tries harder to understand, but struggles with the issue of her family not accepting her because of her daughter.

Open doors: The St Mark’s Church in NY

St Marks In-The-Bowery is itself offbeat as churches go. It's as famous for its avant-garde poetry project as anything else. Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, was affiliated with it, as was Ted Berrigan, a luminary of the New School. But the church is more traditional in rector selection. The bishop supplies the names of applicants to the vestry, or governing body. The vestry then selects, the bishop then approves. "The church wardens (lay officials of the vestry) wouldn't have selected a rector on the basis of being gay or a woman of colour. But they were smart and analytical enough to know that it would be a good move to make if the person who was gay and a woman of colour was also the right person for the job. Many churches would see my packaging as too much of a burden, more than they could tolerate," says Winnie.

Shortly after her birth, Winnie was sent to Kottayam to live with her mother's family, while her parents finished their education in the US. She stayed till she was four. (Malayalam was her first spoken language. "I still speak a little. My Malayalam is terrible.") Her father, on his return to India, had hoped to find work and resettle. But the job market then was tough. He brought his family back to the US, where Winnie grew up in north Texas, a place politically inhospitable to progressives.

She visits India often. She says it's like going home, but she admits it would not be easy for a gay woman who is "out" to feel at home in India. "Since I lived in India in my early formative years, I feel I am Indian. I don't think it's just nostalgia." She felt slighted when the security official at the Trivandrum airport wanted to know, "Where are you going? Is this your home?" "I wanted to say, 'Is this your home?' So many of us from Kerala live abroad. The sense of home, even among Keralites, is very flexible."

Winnie was 17, and a student at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, when she took the decision to become a priest. A course she took on women in Hebrew scripture, with its emphasis on empowering everyone, enabled her to contemplate the vocation of priest. She has worked, since her ordination in 2000, as a chaplain at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) and Columbia. Winnie gets calls and e-mails for counselling from gay members of the Indian community, and from their friends and families. She talks of an Indian Christian student at UCLA, very bright, who came to her with a strong resistance to her sister's lesbianism. "It was shocking, because I could tell she was the kind of person who would have no trouble accepting a gay friend. How could her sister's actions be okay? she asked. The Bible says it's not okay. Society says it's not okay."

For weeks, they talked about the Bible and homosexuality, culture and community. One of the student's big stumbling blocks, Winnie observed, was her belief that her sister was bad in the eyes of the world, and she had chosen to side with the world against her, because the world had worked for her. "I don't know how the student finally resolved the matter, but the fact that she was willing to talk about it, and not give up struggling with it, showed that she was not completely closed." Winnie's appointment as St Mark's pastor allows her outreach to reach deeper. "It gives me greater legitimacy within the community," she acknowledges.

Perhaps because part of her is an outsider who has had trouble fitting comfortably into any one community, she has found herself, to a greater or lesser degree, involved in many communities. When she was a student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, she formed ties with many Southeast Asian activist women. The women helped organise taxi drivers, victims of domestic violence, the poor of Harlem, the Bronx and Queens, who lacked access to healthcare, immigrants trying to avoid deportation and stay afloat in the big city. "We were groups of women around the same age, alienated from our families, finding ourselves, because of our politics, in places outside our culture, all of us wanting to be taken seriously as smart, class-conscious organisers."

Winnie would like to see activists again on the steps and in the graveyard of St Marks like in the sixties, and in the days leading up to the Iraq war. "Spirituality for me is very embodied. It's who we are on this earth, and how we treat each other on this planet."

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