Inclusivity a watchword at Newport Beach church during Pride Month and beyond

As part of Pride month, Josh Vecchione, left, a transgender male was welcomed by the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees.
As part of Pride month, Josh Vecchione, a transgender male was welcomed by Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, St. James Episcopal Church, Newport Beach to speak to the congregation on a recent Sunday.
(Susan Hoffman)

Josh Vecchione, a transgender male, had spoken in front of large groups before, but a recent Sunday would be his first time speaking before a church congregation. He sat across from the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees for the “Altarside Chat” in honor of Pride month at St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach.

Vecchione, who had had sex reassignment surgery to become male 44 years ago at the age of 20, explained, “I always felt like a boy, since I was 8 years old.”

As a result of gender reassignment, Vecchione, an Orange County resident, has endured intolerance, exclusion and strife. He has been called “one of those freaks” by a DMV clerk, prompting stares from the room full of people. He has been followed when he walked down the street in his neighborhood where he’d once been class president of his high school.

He was embroiled in a court case for 10 years, fighting for custody with his ex-wife over their young daughter. He had set a precedent in being recognized legally as a gender reassigned male to marry and parent, which generated national media attention. But it was expulsion from his place of worship that was the most hurtful.

“More devastating than going through the custody trial was to have my church turn their back on me, saying I’m not good enough to be at church anymore,” said Vecchione. “It’s sad to be shunned from a church because of who you choose to love. We’re all the same.”

Irene Vecchione in white jacket, sits among the congregation at St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach.
Irene Vecchione in white jacket, sits among the congregation at St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach in support of her husband, transgender Josh Vecchione, who participated in an altarside chat with the Rev. Cindy Voorhees.
(Susan Hoffman)

Vecchione, a jeweler, city commissioner and funeral service director who holds degrees in psychology and deaf studies, had once been fully accepted into that church. Among his contributions over the 15 years there was his deaf ministry; he was interpreting by signing on stage every Sunday and also teaching a class in sign language.

The upheaval that elicited the pastoral decision from the Orange County megachurch occurred after a former high school classmate approached church officials about Vecchione’s gender change. That news, along with the custody event going public, set into motion his separation from the church.

He was ordered to either repent, admit he was a sinner and go back to being a female or he could no longer be a member of the church. Nor could his parents, if they continued to support him.

He recalls the pastor’s words: “When you get to heaven, what’s God going to say?”

Vecchione’s dad, who attended the same meeting with the pastor, interjected, “He’s going to say, ‘Job well done, come on in,’ and to you people, you’re hypocrites.”

While Vecchione’s once accepting church environment shattered, Meg Cooper’s grew stronger.

New to California, Cooper stumbled across St. James Episcopal Church, which happened to be down the street from her home on the Balboa Peninsula.

“After my first visit I was excited to go back, it was such a welcoming community,” said Cooper, who hadn’t felt that way when she visited other churches. “The couple sitting next to me encircled me afterward and invited me to the after-church hospitality service.”

Cooper was about to learn welcoming went beyond church walls. While at her bank one morning, she ran into Voorhees, senior priest from the church, who apparently remembered her and noticed she had been absent for a time. Voorhees pointed her finger at Cooper and said, “Where have you been? You need to come back.”

They headed to Starbucks next door where Voorhees took the time to get to know Cooper and where the then-newcomer became comfortable enough during the conversation to talk about her sexuality.

“[Voorhees] was overly welcoming, which was so refreshing,” said Cooper, an openly gay female. “It made me want to give my time and resources.”

Five years later, in January 2021 Cooper took on the role of Bishop’s Warden at St. James, which is the leader of the Bishop’s Committee, similar to a board of directors. “The whole congregation is so kind and welcoming,” said Cooper. “It’s so easy to be yourself there.”

Bishop's Warden Meagan Cooper, center right, celebrates PRIDE month.
Bishop’s Warden Meagan Cooper, center right, celebrates PRIDE month as a gay female, with friends, from left, Jackie Freeman, Maggie and Rod Adams at St. James Episcopal Church with giveaway of rainbow pool noodles.
(Susan Hoffman)

Along with Cooper’s church duties, she is employed as a human resources leader for a medical device company, and is the chairman of the board of the LGBTQ Center OC.

Cooper explained that there’s an intersection between what the LGBTQ Center of OC does and the work that Voorhees is doing in the LGBTQ space. Voorhees participated earlier this year in a panel discussion on the topic “Can you be Queer And Christian?”

“Personally, I’ve had an easier time defending my gayness to the faith community than defending my faith to the LGBTQ community,” said Cooper. “The LGBTQ have been so ostracized by the church, they [often] ask ‘why am I going?’”

She explained since members of the LGBTQ community have been pushed away from church, the consensus is they can’t be gay and have faith; they have to give up one or the other.

“We stand for inclusiveness, it’s part of our website,” said Voorhees. “Our church is a positive force and we consider ourselves an allyship and are open about it.”

Allyship is an ongoing process of learning about experiences, empathizing with challenges of a marginalized group of people and building relationships with them. It also means you’re taking on the struggle as your own whether you fully understand what it feels like to be oppressed or marginalized.

With June as Pride Month and St. James being a haven for inclusion and recognizing the struggles, it is celebrating the contributions of the LGBTQ community.

The month-long recognition along with lighting of the church in rainbow colors, providing visitors with a Human Rights Campaign glossary of terms and a giveaway bag noting gratitude from the LGBTQ community: “Pride is unity in diversity.”

“Gays are a loving community, yet they are an oppressed community,” said Voorhees. “They have influential assets, yet they are kicked out [of churches or other organizations] for being gay.”

Cooper added that doing good and supporting inclusivity brings light to a marginalized class. She advocates being more than just open — to be loud in a good way, and to be a member of a community that accepts people for who they are and celebrates them.

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