“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the stories of people who choose to make their dreams come true on their own.
Since childhood, Vica Steel has dreamed of becoming a priestess, paving the way for church leadership. But she had long since given up on that dream. She did not feel compatible with her Catholic upbringing. She felt out of sync with herself at the time.
Clarity joined her two and a half years ago after Ms. Steel, a married elementary school teacher who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, became so scared that she ended up in the emergency room with a heart attack. It was not.
Working with a counselor, she found that she had struggled most of her life trying to figure out who she was. Shortly thereafter, she came out as a transgender woman. Your wife accepted it. Her family accepted her.
Ms. Steel said the urge to explore a new calling was already growing. And although many of her schoolmates and students supported her, she said she has experienced backlash from some quarters in the school district, particularly over her use of student-designated bathrooms. A Madison Metropolitan School District spokesman Tim LeMonds said the problem was Ms. Steel’s use of a student bathroom, not gender. Ms. Steel said this was a common practice among teachers, adding that the adult toilets were too far from their classroom.
Despite all of this, there was always a place that was close to her heart, that she believed would never accept. Until now.
At the age of 56, Ms. Steel retired from her career as a public school teacher for nearly 24 years in June. This month she began studying on a scholarship at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa to become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or ELCA), a large denomination of the Lutheran Church that allows LGBTQ clerics. (The following interview has been edited and shortened.)
Was there a moment when you felt compelled to go this route?
It was October 2020 when the Chicago Lutheran Seminary offered a full week of courses for prospective students to attend. That was such a wonderful revelation. That’s when I really heard this discourse: The ELCA branch not only questions, but recognizes how damage has been and is being done in the name of the Church and is working to change this.
I realized, “Oh. Yes sir. That’s something I could probably think about. ”And then it was just one step at a time.
What started the idea of preaching?
I feel like I have the opportunity to do something really powerful.
What attracted you to the Lutheran Church?
A friend from Minnesota wrote to speak to me about how hospitable her church is. I love the rituals and traditions that I grew up with. And the Lutheran Church has the same or similar rituals and traditions.
But what I particularly liked about the ELCA is that they work so hard to be radically inclusive. You are asking the right questions. You really think it through. You have a queer-affirming team that does the work. And I think there is a lot to be done.
Have you always been religious?
As a child, I really envisioned becoming a priest or some kind of spiritual leader in the Catholic Church.
I stayed active until around 14. I read the readings and the gospel in mass. I served as an altar boy.
But I also knew, without really having the words for it, that I didn’t fit. I realized that the Church had no place for anyone like me or anything that I was. I just couldn’t stick with it. And I started to feel that distance. No religion at the time that I know anyway was welcoming or inclusive to queer or transgender people.
Is Spirituality a defining characteristic for you?
From my youth I started calling myself anything from “catholic” to “atheist” to “agnostic” or just putting religious thoughts aside. When I was in my 30s I started calling myself spiritual. Even when I enter the Lutheran tradition, the core of this work is primarily spiritual.
And when I become a pastor, I really want a world where it just says, “We are here to worship and love together”.
What have been your challenges so far?
I find it hard to say, ‘I am a Christian.’ I find it difficult to say, “I believe in God”, I find it difficult to say, “I pray”. Because all of these words have been used as weapons against me, and they are still used all the time as weapons to say that we don’t belong and are not right.
One of the most common phrases is when people say, “Oh, we’re praying for you, Vica.” No, you don’t pray for me, you pray that I will become what you want.
What are your goals now?
Recognition. So many queer people in the church aren’t out. They keep their identities hidden because they know it is harder to get traditional pastorship, even in places that confirm it.
I would like to change that through my presence. I will not hide who I am. I can not. I’m six feet tall, broad shoulders, my voice sounds like a man’s, but I’ll be just who I am. And I’ll show people that we can be strong together.
What lessons can people learn from your experience?
Be as open as you can. Be as honest as you can about who you are. Because ultimately love overwhelms.
We are looking for people who decide that it is never too late to switch, change their life and make dreams come true. Should we talk to you or someone you know? Share your story here.