When speaking with Rev. Lawrence Richardson, you sense warmth, compassion, humor, and love. You don’t detect even a hint of bitterness, despite the fact that his journey to become the leader of Linden Hills United Church of Christ included enough tragic hurdles to fill a Hollywood script. As Minnesota’s first transgender black pastor, he exudes a hard-won sense of accomplishment.
Born to teen parents in St. Paul, Richardson saw his alcoholic father abuse his mother, resulting in homelessness once his mom fled with the kids. Things got worse when Richardson’s mother moved in with his eventual stepdad, whom Richardson describes as “the epitome of evil.” Everyone in the house endured his physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Eventually, Richardson’s mom snapped. “She started to see me as a demonic representation of my father,” he says.
The terrified third-grader was shipped off to live with his paternal grandmother, a deeply pious Southern Baptist. The following years provided rarified tranquility for Richardson, who absorbed the comfort and teachings of church with gusto.
It wouldn’t last.
At Highland Park High School, Richardson learned about sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time. His previous lessons on those subjects were less nuanced. “There was no conversation about sex and sexuality at home or at church except: Don’t do it, and don’t be gay,” he says.
When Richardson’s grandma saw him holding hands with another gender-nonconforming teen, she was certain the “demon of homosexuality” had gripped her grandson.
Literally—Richardson would be subjected to an exorcism.
Outed and booted by his grandmother, he found himself homeless yet again, this time for nine months. But miraculously, the experience brought Richardson closer to God.
“I knew God didn’t dislike me,” he says. “I knew the same God I prayed to as a little kid when I got nightmares was the same God that was walking with me when I was a homeless teen.”
Richardson moved back in with his grandma, though strict and repressive rules were to be obeyed. Depressed and friendless as a sophomore at St. Catherine University, Richardson—the first member of his family to attend college—tried to overdose on pills. That event transformed his grandmother: She immediately apologized and accepted him, only to die one year later of lupus. Four days after that, Richardson’s lupus-stricken father killed himself, leaving him responsible for his two teen sisters.
After earning a master’s degree at Jerry Falwell’s notoriously conservative Liberty University, Richardson finally started catching some breaks. He discovered the LGBTQ-friendly United Church of Christ in 2007, and launched an online offshoot, Shift, the next year. Around the same time, Richardson first heard the word “transgender.” Everything finally made sense; hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery came in the following years. “My spirit just exhaled,” he says. And then, in 2014, Richardson was hired at Linden Hills United Church of Christ.
“They were working on sentencing reform, climate change, white privilege,” he says. “I was in love.”
Last fall, at 38, Richardson became the church’s lead minister. He hopes to remain there for at least 15 years, preaching a simple but profound message.
“My religious philosophy is that God is love,” he says. “We are commanded to embody and express that love with everyone we encounter, including ourselves.”
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