What’s in a name?
For Malcolm Himschoot, this is neither a rhetorical question nor an easy one. Nothing is in a name; and, of course, everything.
Born Miriam Himschoot in 1977, it wasn’t until his first year at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, when he was 22, that Malcolm began introducing himself as Malcolm. It was a first and frightening step toward familiarizing other people with what he had long known to be his true, male, identity.
“It was [my] challenge to other people, just to say my name,” Himschoot says, seated in his new office at Plymouth Congregational Church in South Minneapolis, where he has just begun a two-year stint as minister of outreach. “It was a test to see if people could admit a gray area [regarding my gender] and still act with love towards me.”
Though religious institutions in America are not always perfect models of tolerance, it turns out that his fellow seminarians and professors at Iliff had little trouble responding with both love and understanding. In fact, the United Methodist seminary provided Himschoot with just the kind of tolerance and inclusion it professes in its mission statement, and allowed him to continue and, indeed, thrive on his spiritual journey
An Unexpected Journey
Himschoot admits that, despite a religious upbringing in rural Colorado, he never expected to end up in the ministry. Partly, this was due to the questions he had about his own gender.
He says his childhood “overlapped neatly with the very conservative politics of the 1980s, which were dangerous to my mental health, as well as to a lot of others. So, a big portion of my spiritual journey was unraveling those two things from one another—the God of faith and the use of God to conceal our own worst motivations, our own worst hostilities toward other people, manifest in bigotry and exclusion against gay and lesbian, bi and trans people.”
It was during his undergraduate work at Amherst that Himschoot was first confronted with and became interested in broader issues of social justice. He joined a group of students who were advocating for a more multi-racial student body. This, he says, was an important learning experience.
“I began to see things from a different point of view,” he recalls. “You know, it’s one of our theological myths that everything is as it should be. Mostly that’s a cop-out. The challenge is to find a theology where God is part of change in the world, part of the struggle, and part of liberation of individuals and communities. That opened up more tolerance in my mind and my heart toward myself—because I had to confront my own judgments.”
After graduating with honors from Amherst, with a cocktail of a degree that included coursework in philosophy, linguistics, neuroscience, and computer technology, Himschoot hit the road. He took time to travel abroad, to Russia, Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico, and it was during his travels, experiencing firsthand the disparities between mainstream culture and the “invisible indigenous populations,” that his interest in social justice and seminary intensified. He originally enrolled in Iliff not to be a minister, but to study ethics. Early on, he began to work with nonprofit organizations in Denver; and the intense sense of reward he got from helping other people inspired in him the desire to switch to the Masters of Divinity track.
He knew he had been called.
Another common experience among divinity students, as Himschoot would soon discover, is to endure a veritable war of obstacles, fought on all three fronts of a person’s life—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Not only was Himschoot pronouncing his name to family, friends, fellow students, professors, and eventually the entire seminary; he was rapidly coming to the decision that he needed to physically “transition” into a male; and struggling with some very serious spiritual questions: Where is God when I hurt? What does it mean to believe? Why trust—God or anyone? Ultimately he was able to resolve these questions for himself; and he is able to see that period of time as a trial of his spirit and his faith.
“There are basically two ways I can look at it,” he says. “I could see only the bad, difficult things and determine that it was a time of desperation and desolation; or I can see it as a kind of test of my faith.” It’s no surprise which way he’s chosen.
During the summer of his final year at Iliff, Himschoot agreed to be the subject of a film project that was to deal with his experience as a transgender person of faith. Originally, it was to be a small project, owing more to amateur educational videos than to feature films, and distributed only within church and GLBT communities. But, says Himschoot, the vision for it began to grow during the filming; and by then it was too late to say no.
The result is a feature-length documentary, Call Me Malcolm, that documents Himschoot’s final year at Iliff and follows him as he travels around the country answering questions about his experience and talking to other transgender people about their struggles.
Upon graduating, Himschoot was honored as Iliff’s Student of the Year and ordained as a United Church of Christ minister. The UCC, which has a long history of honoring the diversity of its parishioners and clergy, particularly those in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities, was also a co-producer of the film.
With school, and much else, finally behind him—and with a new love in his life—Mariah Hayden, to whom he is now married—Himschoot was faced with the daunting task of finding work as a minister.
“I put my profile out there nationwide,” he says, “to just see where I’d feel led.”
It didn’t take long for a search committee at the 1,800-member, inner-city Plymouth Congregational Church to determine that Himschoot was the ideal person for the job, and try to lure him to Minneapolis.
“Malcolm met and exceeded all of the requirements, in both his academic record and practical ministry experience,” says Jeffrey Sartain, the church’s Minister for Member Care. “Of all the candidates, we were most impressed with the depth and maturity of his spirit, and with the dignity and grace with which he handles himself.”
Himschoot also felt it was a good fit. “PCC is a church that has taken a lot of action locally, trying to connect their life of faith and service and the community,” he says. Officially, Himschoot’s position is a two-year residency funded by the Lilly Endowment, which places promising individuals just starting out in the ministry.
Working at PCC, Himschoot’s beat will be the Whittier neighborhood, where he and Hayden are also living. He travels on foot each day, to and from work, trying to get a feel for his new home. Though he agrees that the problems faced by people in inner-city communities sometimes can get overwhelming, he’s excited about the opportunities that this position will afford him.
“When I’m feeling like something’s too much for me, I have to remind myself that, after all, God’s heart is much bigger than mine.”