The pastor stood at the pulpit, head bowed.
“Let us pray,” recited Rev. Nikira Hernandez as Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” began to blast through the speakers of the sanctuary.
I’m beautiful in my way ’cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way
Don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself, and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way
Hernandez donned a traditional clerical collar under a black shirt, but where a small white square would usually peek out from the fabric, the pastor had sewn in a miniature version of the LGBTQ+ pride flag. A pink boa hung over the pastor’s shoulders, swaying in rhythm as Hernandez danced across the stage to the opening prayer.
It was drag church day, after all.
Standing beside Hernandez were three parishioners who had created eclectic outfits with pieces they pulled from the church’s basement thrift store. Some attendees waved pride flags, and others danced between the pews. Though the drag service comes once a year, it is part of a larger mission at Brighton Allston Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ (UCC) that is trying to stretch the bounds of what “church” means.
“I work to actively send the message that everyone, without exception, is a beloved child of God, and that is not in spite of who we are but because of who we are and all of our different identities that we are deeply cared for by the Spirit and by extension, this community,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez, who identifies as queer and uses the pronouns they/them, has made it their goal to prove that Christianity does not serve just one community. The Christianity that Hernandez preaches is diverse and inclusive—a break from the historical norm of exclusion that exists across the globe.
“I do things like drag church to play with gender to invite folks to reimagine some of the more harmful parts of Christianity,” Hernandez said.
About two dozen members of the church stood scattered around the sanctuary on Oct. 30 for the service. Most were by themselves, some in pairs, and a handful gathered with their families.
Among them was Christine Radice, a longtime resident of Brighton who now lives in Oak Square, who stood alone in a pew. Eleven years ago, Radice dropped off a box of nonperishable foods at the church’s food pantry. The church’s message of inclusion resonated with her, so she came back the next week. Then the next and the next.
“That’s what Jesus was about—centering people who others had forgotten or marginalized,” she said.
Most of the church’s white, wooden pews sat empty, looking almost forlorn without parishioners. The lack of people at the drag service was reflective of a national trend: Church attendance across the country is declining rapidly, and churches are suffering because of it.
But Hernandez isn’t worried about their congregation.
Brighton Allston Congregational Church is one of more than 1,700 churches in the UCC system certified as an organization “open and affirming” to people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions, according to the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition.
Even when the organs are hushed and the sanctuary is empty, Brighton Allston Congregational’s mission is not over.
“How we love one another and take care of one another as a community is far more important than whether we get butts in the seats on Sunday morning,” Hernandez said.
That commitment to community starts in the church’s food pantry. It collects donations year-round, distributing them throughout the week. The biggest event comes on Saturdays, when 40 to 50 volunteers show up to serve upward of 100 families each week.
“In my church, we certainly have smaller numbers on Sunday morning,” Hernandez said. “But then, on Saturday when we do our food pantry, the church is full. And that, to me, is just as much church as whatever happens on Sunday morning because that’s living our faith and moving our community together.”
The small-but-mighty group of parishioners arrives every Sunday. Katie Donegan, a Brighton resident who visited the church for the first time on Oct. 30, said she was thrilled to feel included so immediately.
“I was kind of afraid walking in here,” Donegan said. “I was going to check it out and maybe leave if I didn’t think it was going to be a positive experience, but I immediately felt like I could be here, even as a newcomer.”
Donegan identified herself as an ex-Catholic and said she had not had a positive experience with Christianity before.
“I feel like this is definitely healing that,” she said, gazing around the sanctuary, which was decorated for Halloween.
Hernandez was not raised Christian. They came out as queer at age 14, and from what they had heard growing up, Christianity would reject practically every aspect of their identity.
“As a mixed-race, Indigenous person, Christianity has not done particularly well by my ancestors,” Hernandez said. “And as a queer person, most of what I heard in the mainstream media was that God hates f–gs.”
But while Hernandez, a member of the Paiute Indigenous group, was serving as a spiritual leader in an Indigenous ceremony community in Santa Cruz, Calif., they felt a call compelling them to go to seminary school.
“Forget that! Why would I do that to myself?” Hernandez recalled thinking when they first heard the call. “But it was insistent, and it was this quiet call in the back of my head that wouldn’t go away.”
Still unsure about their relationship with Christianity, Hernandez enrolled at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. on a full scholarship. Though many of their peers were certain in their plans to become ministers, Hernandez spent the first year of school uncertain.
It wasn’t until late 2014, one year into Hernandez’s time in seminary school, that they gained some clarity. Hernandez traveled to downtown Berkeley with a few friends for a Black Lives Matter protest. The group watched as a young Black woman stood peacefully in front of a line of police in riot gear chanting “Black Lives Matter,” according to Hernandez.
The scene then broke out into chaos, Hernandez said.
Tear gas filled the air. A wave of shouting, screams, and rubber bullets overtook the crowd. One of Hernandez’s friends sustained injuries that landed her in the hospital. Hernandez said they were hit, knocked over, and trampled.
The group reconvened the next day with experts from the National Lawyers Guild who helped them understand their legal rights in protest situations. Some of the seminary’s professors offered vestments to Hernandez and the rest of the group to wear to the protests the next day.
A similar scene erupted the next day, and Hernandez, draped in a flowing white robe, stepped toward a line of police officers on highway 80 just before the Bay Bridge, they said.
“I noticed that [the police] were hitting people on my left and to my right, and they weren’t touching me in the ostentatiously religious garment,” Hernandez said. “And so I tried to get as big as I could to protect as many people as I could. And that’s kind of when it hit me as well. If I can leverage the power of institutional Christianity to protect people, then that’s not a call that I can say no to.”
Four years later, Hernandez was an ordained minister working to ensure that all people—especially LGBTQ+ people—felt valued in Christianity.
“Having a pastor you can talk to and be humanly with is very important,” said Alexander Hamilton, one of the parishioners of the church. “[Hernandez’s] passion for God is amazing, but their passion for people is even greater.”
Though drag church happens just once per year, Hernandez’s mission is the same every Sunday: to create an inviting atmosphere in which to celebrate faith and identity.
In Hernandez’s church, services begin with an Indigenous land acknowledgement. In Hernandez’s church, scripture is used to uplift people in marginalized communities. In Hernandez’s church, God has gender-neutral pronouns.
“God is so much more than we could imagine,” Hernandez said. “God holds masculine and feminine and everything in between and beyond.”
The drag church service concluded with another hymn you wouldn’t find in the red hymnals in the backs of each pew. Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” came over the speakers as parishioners—young and old, representing any number of identities and orientations—began to filter out to the parking lot.
“Christianity in this country holds a lot of privilege and a lot of power,” Hernandez said. “And what’s clear to me is that my call is to use that privilege and power to stand beside and lift up those who are pushed to the margins.”
Images by Aneesa Wermers / Heights Staff