Reverend Evan Smith is an Evangelical Christian, but she's also queer, polyamorous, Indigenous and an advocate for the decriminalization of sex work. She's into tattoos and leather—yes, that kind of leather—and she's the minister at the Toronto Urban Native Ministry. She's both sex-positive and Jesus-positive.
"Jesus was killed by the state because of his anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian views," she says. "I mean, that's a guy I can follow."
But not everyone gets it. Don a minister's collar at Pride and suddenly you're an object of fascination and confusion: people take pictures, gawk, look at you with "what the hell?" expressions. "Coming out" as Christian isn't always easy.
VICE interviewed "Rev Ev' about what it's like to come out as Evangelical to people in the queer, Indigenous and non-monogamous communities, and how she's able to love the Bible while living a lifestyle it typically condemns.
VICE: Can you talk a bit about your life before becoming a minister? What lead you to inhabit your current beliefs?
Evan Smith: So I grew up going to church, and that was a really good experience until I came out as a lesbian when I was fourteen or fifteen. I was living in a small town at the time and kept getting gay-bashed, like really badly, and so I moved to Toronto, where I ended up living on the streets. During this time I decided to come out at an Evangelical youth event, and I was basically thrown out of the church. And so as a result I became a hardcore atheist for almost 10 years. I wouldn't even go into church buildings.
But then I went to New Orleans to volunteer after Katrina, and while I was there I was invited to a church. I decided to go, and it was really terrible. It was all about who was going to hell and who we should be judging. But at the same time, I realized that all the people there were just happy to be with a community and feel that bigger spiritual power, even though they'd experienced so much violence and oppression.
And so I came back to Toronto and started going to church again—like a really hardcore, above and beyond Pentecostal church called Catch the Fire—and one week the preacher was talking about who would go to hell and why, and I sort of felt like a voice was speaking to me, saying, "This isn't what I intended. You need to go and preach love."
Literally within two months I had applied to seminary with the United Church and was on my way to becoming a minister. And this is when I first heard about liberation theology, which comes out of South America and says that God and Jesus always side with the oppressed. For the first time, I was able to read the bible less at face value and more as a book that was written at a certain time for a certain group of people in a certain place. And we're not that group of people anymore. I just think there are some really important teachings in the Bible that speak to the liberation of minorities and the need for justice and love in the world.
What has it been like to "come out" as an Evangelical Christian in the queer community?
When queer people hear I'm an Evangelical Christian, their first reaction is always one of distrust—or maybe disbelief that morphs to distrust. So I'll get asked what I do for a living and people are just shocked when I tell them I'm a minister, which definitely has to do with the damage Christianity has done in communities I belong to, like the queer and trans communities. I also get some weird questions, like people asking, "Oh, can I swear in front of you?" which, if you know me, is a completely ridiculous thing to ask.
When I come out as an Evangelical, I always have this process of, like, not being apologetic for being a Christian, but trying to quickly justify why I'm a member of the faith and why Christianity speaks to me—especially as an Indigenous person, which is this added intersection that can make my religion difficult to reconcile. Like, there's so much in the Bible that encourages harm, like killing entire villages, many of them Indigenous, but that negative stuff reflects the time it was written. The bible has to be read through an anti-colonial lens. My ministry is also really unique in that we uphold traditional Indigenous spirituality and Christianity as equals, so at the same time we do church and worship, we also do sweat lodges, naming ceremonies and fasting.
What's your most memorable coming-out-as-Christian experience?
So at Pride in Toronto, there's always this guy in Yonge and Dundas square holding big signs with sayings like, "God Hates You!" and all that. The year before last, I saw this one girl, maybe only fourteen or fifteen, and she was arguing with him and getting really upset—even though she was never going to change his mind. But this was probably this girl's first time at Pride, and her first time seeing such blatant homophobia in her face, and so she was super upset.
Anyhow, I was wearing my clergy collar and decided to walk over and step between them. I was facing her, with my back to the guy, and I said, "don't worry about him. He's gonna get what's coming to him, and I know that God absolutely loves you and made you perfect. You are so precious and loved, and don't ever forget that." She started to cry and hug me. It was an incredible moment because I'm always wary about wearing my collar at Pride, where I get a lot of stares like, "what the heck is going on?" and people taking pictures because I have tattoos and I'm very queer-looking [laughs] and it seems at odds with the collar.
Sometimes people get really angry when they find out I am a Christian. Especially in Two-Spirit communities, I am often questioned as to how I can support something that has done so much damage to Indigenous and queer communities. But the thing is, I think it's important to make the distinction between religious institutions and the faith itself. The faith isn't the problem, it's the people who use religion to justify bigotry, abuse, colonization, and murder.
I think it's important to stand up and show people who I am. Because more often than being criticized, I'm approached by people at Pride who say things like, "oh my god, it's so good to see you like this. I was thrown out of the church and I miss it so much." So trust can be built, but people are automatically suspicious of me when they hear about my religion and my job—like do I have ulterior motives or will I turn out to be really weird and preachy?
"Weird and preachy" is a label people assign to Evangelists pretty often. How do you deal with this snap-judgement, and why do you identify as Evangelical?
I identify as an Evangelical because I think Christians have a really great story to tell—one the world in its current state needs to hear. But I think we need to reimagine what Evangelism means. If it means going into communities, telling people they're wrong, and beating them over the head with bibles—well I'm not interested in that. I'm more interested in going into our own communities and saying, "You know what? I'm part of this living story that talks about hope and dignity and the value of people, and you're welcome to hear this story and join me. And if not, that's fine." Evangelism that doesn't recognize cultural and spiritual differences is not the kind I'm interested in. But I'm also really tired of the Christian fundamentalist right co-opting the entire Christian community.
I also rarely get challenged on my Evangelism because I exist within a lot of minorities— I'm queer, poly and Indigenous—and so it's hard for people to say, "oh but look at the damage Evangelism has done to oppressed communities." I'm a part of several of those oppressed communities, yet still religious, and so that argument doesn't hold water.
Within your different but overlapping communities—so poly, queer, Indigenous—is there any group that is more hesitant to accept your religion? Just due to history of oppression?
It's probably the non-monogamous community. Which makes sense because the church has always had such an investment in marriage, like we've been the dictator of what is and isn't an acceptable family make-up. For years the church was against interracial and gay marriage—attitudes that have thankfully improved in many cases—but we still don't have an explicit policy when it comes to non-monogamy. I mean, I know a number of clergy and church members, myself included, who are non-monogamous, but it's still something that's harder to negotiate. For example, I've done legal weddings that involve a non-legal third person, and I've married couples who I know are in an open relationship. For me, it's about balancing standard church ideologies with Indigenous world views, which place value on who and what your chosen family is, which is something that's always been central to the queer community as well.
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