Rev. Winnie Varghese – Lives of Commitment 2019

Learn more about the 2019 Auburn Lives of Commitment Benefit Breakfast and Awards at auburnloc.org

By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

The Rev. Winnie Varghese’s childhood offered her an early understanding of what it means to embody multiple identities. She was born in America, yet was raised in Kerala, India for the first years of her life. Varghese felt she was equally an American and an immigrant. When she returned to Dallas, Texas at the age of three, she had to learn English as a second language and how to navigate a culture that she was both a part of and apart from.

I felt very at home with both identities. It helped me to have a particular way of seeing the world, and figuring out how things worked, trying to make sense of things that didn’t make sense.”

Dallas in the 1970s could be a dangerous place for immigrants. Varghese recalls stopping at the first Indian grocery store in town one day. Her father went inside and didn’t buy anything, but stayed casually leaning on the counter and speaking to the owner, a fellow Indian immigrant. Outside, a member of the Klu Klux Klan in full robes was handing out flyers protesting the business of this brown-skinned immigrant. Her father went in as an act of solidarity and, as Varghese recalls with admiration in her voice: “My father was not afraid, and he conveyed to me that I didn’t have to be afraid. I felt safe and confident, and I am so grateful for that.”

Rev. Varghese’s Indian and American identities were intertwined with her religious one. Her parents both belonged to Orthodox Christian traditions in Kerala, India, where their churches had been involved in the movement for India’s liberation and social justice was deeply embedded in their faith. Varghese recalls the bemusement of her parents when she came home from school with questions about the American Evangelical beliefs of her white classmates. “They felt it was quite shallow, but they were too kind to say so at the time.”

While faith was important to Varghese, she had no sense of it being a possible career when she set out for college in order to follow the Bible’s mandate to work for a more just world. When Varghese was just 17 and in her first semester away from home, she was studying for a religion class when a few things happened at the same time.

I was doing my homework, reading the Bible, and I realized, ‘Oh, I’m queer,’ and I felt like I was in my own body for the first time. And at the same moment it became clear that I was supposed to be a Priest.”

This radical revelation felt like it came from the outside and entered her body, adding two more identities to Varghese’s experience — that of a queer woman and of a Christian called to leadership. “All the Gospels raced through my mind and it made sense for the first time. My sexuality came to me using the language of salvation — that it wasn’t something that I was choosing, I just knew it to be true and that the truth would cost something.”

For a time, Varghese couldn’t imagine actually becoming a priest, so she studied international relations and religion, assuming she would live out her religious calling within the academic world. “Me becoming a priest was not supposed to happen,” Varghese insisted. “I was queer, an immigrant, and I wasn’t supposed to have a path; nobody could see it.” And yet Varghese persisted: she went to seminary and was given a job as the Episcopal chaplain at UCLA, then at Columbia, and was then called to lead the famous St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in the East Village.

For the past four years, Varghese has been the Director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Church Wall Street. She was attracted to Trinity when she heard the Rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer, speak about reparations and his commitment to challenging the structures of racism. Varghese has been leading the effort for Trinity to take that mandate seriously and to use the resources of the church for the healing of the world. Rev. Varghese explains that Trinity’s anti-racism work is tightly focused on criminal justice reform, as well as housing and homelessness for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. By bringing the substantial moral, political, and financial power of Trinity, there is an opportunity to stay in the struggle for the long term and make sustainable, just change.

All of Varghese’s vocation as a priest and as a social justice leader is about liberation: “My work is to free people to be themselves. People are told to strive for something that is very different than what they really are. We are made for freedom to live into ourselves, to become ourselves. We desire to flourish personally, and create flourishing for all.”

Learn more about the 2019 Auburn Lives of Commitment Benefit Breakfast and Awards at auburnloc.org

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