By: Jenna Spinelle/TRT Reporter—
MALDEN, Mass.—It’s one thing to dream about a life change, but it’s something else entirely to actually go out and make it happen.
Otto O’Connor followed his calling to a life of faith and is now poised to help others as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
On Aug. 1, O’Connor was settled as the minister of First Parish Malden, a Unitarian Universalist church. He became the church’s first openly transgender minister and one of the first openly trans religious leaders in the Boston area.
O’Connor grew up in Canada and moved to the U.S. to attend Cornell University, where he was part of the Atheist and Agnostic Club. He was called to faith in 2006 after having lunch with a Mormon friend.
He found the Unitarian Universalist community a welcoming place that identified with his ideas about the role faith plays in fighting for social justice. He said he hopes to work with his new congregation to achieve some of those goals.
“I’m ready to get started [on] the work we’re doing together to achieve a more just and compassionate world,” O’Connor said. “From DACA to hurricanes, I see a world that is so in need of healing and care. Worship is a place where we’re reminded of how we can live out those values in our daily lives.”
O’Connor attended Andover Newton Theological School and completed a two-year residency at First Parish in Sherborn, Massachusetts under the guidance of Rev. Nathan Detering, who is also a faculty member at the school.
Detering said O’Connor came to his church as a talented speaker who easily connected with the congregation. He learned to apply those skills to the other parts of a minister’s job, such as one-on-one meetings with congregation members and officiating services for funerals and other occasions.
“He is very gifted at leading worship and is able to carry his public persona and carry that public part of himself into the more privatized experience of being a minister,” Detering said. “I saw his capability for asking questions and for listening grow over time. So much of the job is in the space between people’s lives that most people never see.”
The First Parish Malden congregation unanimously voted to settle O’Connor as its minister following a week-long visit and interview in April. His appointment concluded a two-year search process and he is the 36th settled minister in the parish.
“I am so thrilled, not just because Otto is our new minister, but that we called him with excitement and optimism. He is the person to work beside us as we act to live out our faith’s highest values for ourselves, our community and our world,” Parish Board President Heather Vickery said in a statement.
O’Connor has lived in Massachusetts for seven years and, during that time, has been a vocal member of the LGBTQ community. He previously worked at MassEquality before going to theology school. His gender transition took place during his time at school, which he describes as a physical and spiritual awakening.
“For me in my journey in order to feel integrated enough to lead a congregation, I needed to go through with that process of transitioning and the self discovery that happens as part of it,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor is part of Transgender Religious professional Unitarian Universalist Together (TRUUsT), a group of about 50 trans religious professionals across the country who support each other on their journeys to realize their calling as faith leaders.
Alex Kapitan, a member of TRUUsT’s leadership committee, said the group is excited about O’Connor’s unanimous settling at First Parish Malden. Such votes are rare for transgender ministers, ze said (note: “ze” is a gender neutral pronoun).
“At every stage along the way, there’s potential for bias,” Kapitan said. “A lot of mythology [surrounds] us that isn’t true, people tend to be really unsure and confused [and] just don’t know and people get scared of things they don’t know anything about.”
The Unitarian Universalist community is known for being one of the most welcoming religious denominations for members, but the same does not always hold true for church leaders, Kapitan said. TRUUsT aims to break down some of those stereotypes within the Unitarian Universalist community by equipping its members to train their congregations on how to recognize bias and work through issues that arise.
“Our world needs leadership from people who are marginalized because of the perspective we bring forward,” Kapitan said. “We experience the world in different ways and that will impact our leadership.”
O’Connor was quick to acknowledge the transgender ministers who came before him and helped clear the path for his ministry. However, he said there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve equality.
“Institutions like churches have for so long been lead by white cisgender men, so whenever someone of an identity that’s different than that is placed in a leadership role it’s something to celebrate,” he said. “There are still so few transgender people who are ministers. It is something that is new and people don’t expect.”
Through his ministry, O’Connor hopes to empower his congregation to fight for social justice and change in a caring and compassionate way.
“One of the things that I feel I’m brought here to do is help folks live out their vision,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being that force in Malden and for people who are interested in progressive change and inclusive religious communities.”