California diocese challenges Kairos’ prison ministry’s anti-trans policy

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Sep 11, 2023

San Quentin State Prison is just one of the places where volunteers from the Diocese of California and other churches have helped lead Kairos Prison Ministry weekends for incarcerated people. But Kairos’ anti-trans policy has prompted discussions about church involvement going forward. Photo: Jitze Couperus/Flickr/Creative Commons

[Episcopal News Service] In August, an Episcopalian from the Diocese of California who has long volunteered with Kairos Prison Ministry International learned that the ministry’s Code of Conduct requires the use of a person’s gender assigned at birth for volunteers and participants in its ministry weekends, meaning transgender or nonbinary people were not welcome.

The volunteer, Christina Reich, soon resigned in protest of such a policy, which runs counter to The Episcopal Church’s policies of LGBTQ+ inclusion as approved by General Convention. Since then, Reich’s resignation has resulted in broader scrutiny by Episcopal leaders in the San Francisco-based diocese of all levels of the diocese’s engagement with Kairos.

Kairos is an interdenominational Christian ministry of volunteers who support prisoners and their families. It offers three programs: Kairos Inside, including a weekend event serving those in prison; Kairos Outside, which serves families of incarcerated people; and Kairos Torch, a mentoring program for incarcerated young people up to age 25.

For 13 years, Reich had been active in Kairos, first as a recipient of its care when her son was incarcerated. That led her to serve as a volunteer at weekend events to offer faith and hope to people in prison, as well as a leadership role as chair of the advisory council of Kairos Outside of Northern California.

Reich first learned about policies of transgender exclusion in the ministry’s Code of Conduct while she was attending an Aug. 12 meeting of the Kairos of California State Committee at All Saints in San Leandro, California. The meeting’s leader also said that being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was a sin, according to Reich.

“I spoke up in protest and was quickly silenced,” she told Episcopal News Service by email. She soon resigned not only from her leadership position but from participation in all Kairos activities, to which she said she previously had planned to devote her life.

Individuals from Episcopal churches or other denominations can volunteer with Kairos, which is its own nonprofit organization. Episcopal parishes and dioceses can provide teams of volunteers and offer financial support for Kairos’ work, but they are not formally affiliated with the organization.

Stephanie Martin Taylor, canon for communications for the diocese, told ENS by email that Reich’s resignation prompted a meeting that included Kairos volunteeres, clergy, diocesan deputies to General Convention and members of diocesan staff, to discuss how to proceed given the conflicts with The Episcopal Church’s policies on LGBTQ+ inclusion.

One outcome of the meeting, Martin said, was the California Episcopalians’ desire to share this information with other Episcopalians. She said a quick internet search turned up dozens of Episcopal churches and dioceses that are involved with Kairos, most of which likely aren’t aware of this policy.

Additionally, the Rev. Justin Cannon, rector of All Saints, has informed Kairos they no longer can hold meetings in the church while its anti-trans policy is in effect.

Plans also are underway for creation of a resolution to be submitted to the diocese’s convention in late October, expressing concern about Kairos’ policy and encouraging organizations to work collaboratively and in nonpartisan ways to assist marginalized people, including both the incarcerated and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Taylor said the resolution also may be submitted to General Convention, which is scheduled to meet June 23-28, 2024, in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Rev. Cameron Partridge, rector of St. Aidan’s in San Francisco, California, told ENS by email that he was very disturbed to learn that Kairos’ policy “does not respect the dignity of trans or nonbinary people” who volunteer or who are themselves incarcerated.

He is a longtime member of TransEpiscopal and someone who worked to add “gender identity and expression” to The Episcopal Church’s nondiscrimination canons for access to leadership.

Partridge also called Kairos’ anti-trans policy “a shame,” because of the need for ministry to incarcerated people, especially one that is spiritually impactful and justice oriented. “A Kairos retreat that affirms the God-given dignity of trans and nonbinary people who are incarcerated could be an incredibly powerful, even life-changing experience,” he said, “particularly given how dehumanizing the prison system can be for trans and nonbinary people.”

He said he hopes Kairos will change its policy, but if that doesn’t happen, “I know that people in this diocese are committed to finding another way to engage such transformative ministry that truly honors the dignity of all participants.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.