In her 12 years of ministry, Paris LaBelle has learned that being a Christian isn’t based on gender identity.
LaBelle, pastor of True Apape Tabernacle of Praise, said she never intended to be known for being a pastor who is transgender and wanted people to focus on her messages and her work for Christ, but a recent TikTok video put her ministry at the forefront of social media criticism.
The video, posted on May 3, shows a slideshow of LaBelle wearing pastoral garments captioned,” I never thought that I could love God and be transgender, but I am so grateful that I understand that God is love and love is for everyone!! Because I am, so many others will be able to be!!”
As of March 23, the video has more than 897 thousand views.
LaBelle said she was surprised by how much attention the video received. People left many hateful comments, but others were supportive of her message. She said she doesn’t regret sharing
“You can be who you are and still love God,” the 28-year-old Bronx, New York native told QCity Metro.
Why it matters: Her efforts come as Republicans across the country are passing anti-trans legislation.
As LaBelle prepares for concentration as a bishop, she wants to provide a safe space for “all of God’s people,” especially other trans people looking to find a place to worship God.
Finding a safe space in church
As a child, LaBelle said her parents struggled with drug addiction, and she was often left alone at home to care for herself.
LaBelle often spent time with her grandmother, who introduced her to church.
“Church was the only place I felt safe,” she said.
She entered the foster care system at seven years old because of her parent’s addiction.
LaBelle said she wanted to stay with her grandmother, but due to her grandmother’s age, 80, she was deemed too old to be her full-time caretaker.
She spent time with more than 50 families in the foster care system over the course of six years, she said.
“I was what they called a ‘runner’ because I would always run away from foster homes to find my grandmother,” she said.
LaBelle said she struggled with finding a stable home and her own identity. She said she suffered from body dysphoria in middle school and felt like she didn’t fit her birth gender.
“My mind didn’t agree with the genitals I was assigned at birth,” she said.
At that time, LaBelle said she identified as a gay man.
A Call to Ministry
At 13, she was adopted by a Black family in New York. Her adoptive father was a pastor at a Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination church, and her adoptive mother was a psychologist.
LaBelle said the COGIC teaching gave her a better understanding of God and developed her desire to go into ministry, she said. In 2010, at 15 years old, she was ordained a minister at her adoptive father’s church.
In 2011, her parents divorced, and LaBelle and her adoptive mother relocated to Durham, N.C. where they attended a COGIC church in the area.
LaBelle said she desired to rise in the ranks of the clergy and become an elder. But her elevation was contingent on her marital status, she said.
“I got married because the church said I had to,” she said. “[The church] did not want a young elder, who was already same gender loving, running around and not be married.”
La Belle said she agreed to the church’s terms. In 2013, she was ordained and licensed as an elder.
She got married in 2015, becoming the first openly gay elder in the church, she said.
Less than a year later, she divorced, citing unhappiness with her life and marriage. During that time, LaBelle struggled with substance abuse and depression.
LaBelle said after her divorce, she realized that she was never gay.
“I realize coming out of that divorce that it wasn’t that I was ‘feminine’, I am a woman,” she said.
LaBelle said she spoke about her feelings with her mother, who disapproved of it, calling her desire to transition a “mental illness.”
The debate strained their relationship leading to their estrangement. Her mom moved to Maryland while she moved to Charlotte in 2018.
Charlotte provided her with a fresh start, LaBelle said. She partook in several transgender pageants and participated in trans advocacy groups.
Ministry remained a top priority, but for the first few years, she struggled with how she’d fit in as a transwoman in the church.
“I was always taught you can do that [become trans],” she said. “For years, I dealt with that. How can I continue to love God and be who I am?”
LaBelle said she connected with a local pastor who invited her to a worship service. Despite her initial doubts, she said church members were accepting of her.
LaBelle said she spent time serving at multiple churches in Charlotte and Columbia, SC. decided that she wanted to found her ministry, True Agape Tabernacle of Praise, in 2022.
The Columbia, S.C. church currently has 100 members, she said.
Apostle Laythan Foster Jr. appointed LaBelle as Bishop-elect in October 2022. She will assume the role in October 2023.
Under her leadership, she plans to govern churches in Charlotte and across South Carolina, known as the Tabernacle of Praise Assemblies of Churches.
Focusing on God’s love
The viral video also brought LaBelle positive attention. Fellow pastors and clergy have commended her for sharing her journey online.
Some have expressed their own desires to come out or to transition after hesitating from fear of church backlash.
LaBelle said she doesn’t plan to change who she is and doesn’t need the validation of anyone except God.
She said being trans-Bishop gives her the platform to reach a demographic often shunned by most churches.
LaBelle told QCity Metro she believes people need to take the time to learn about each other’s differences, whether they agree with them or not.
“Love is what love does,” she said. “God’s love is for everyone.”