VICTORIA – Fairfield United Church, known for its long-standing inclusive and affirming position for LGBTQ+ Christians, celebrated a first on June 9, which also marked Pentecost Sunday. Leilani Jonas, XQQ’s own editor-in-chief and a member of this congregation of several years, marked a change of name. Leilani, whose previous name was Atley, chose a new first name for herself, making Atley her middle name, to replace an old middle name that no longer suited her.
While ceremonies marking a name change are not new even in the Christian tradition, the United Church of Canada does not have an official rite, which left local celebrants to formulate their own. Inspired by a ceremony used in the Memorial Congregational Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts, Leilani Jonas and Beth Walker used several sources and created a new rite that could be used for anyone wishing to mark a name-changing milestone with the community and within their faith tradition.
Jonas also shared a homily (short, informal sermon) explaining the reasons and background for her choice, which XQQ is pleased to reprint in a modified format here. Over 50 people attended the ceremony, with several XQQ staffers and Jonas’s family members in attendance.
Last year, when I attended the keynote address for the UVic Moving Trans History Forward conference, there was a bit of discourse regarding the keynote speaker’s use of her trans child’s pre-transition name. At least one participant found that questionable, if not outright offensive. But not long after that, a First Nations guest spoke up also, and offered their view, which was quite different from the one previously expressed. They spoke of their grandmother, who was known by many names. She had a name she was born with, but she also had several names throughout her lifetime and for various purposes, and even at her death, had a different name too. None of those names were a “dead” name. None of them were invalid. None of them were to be shunned or could not be uttered. They were all accorded a place of honour and respect, within the time and place they were needed. This is very foreign to a colonial, European mindset, where one name is chosen by a parent and remains with an individual until their dying day. It’s hard to comprehend. And for many parents it’s hard to accept and understand because changing a birth name is often seen as a sign of rejection or rebellion.
In many Canadian indigenous traditions, the original peoples had neither a first nor a last name. They had hereditary names, spirit names, family names, clan names, animal names, and even nicknames. In many of these cultures, the child’s birth name was just that – the name given at birth. But it was meant for that stage of life and it was common, even expected that as the child grew, and marked milestones, acts of courage or bravery, or underwent some major change, a new name would be added or the old name would be changed altogether. And of course, Christian names didn’t exist until they were forcibly given by the colonizers when they arrived on these lands. One excerpt from a document I read, explained it like this: “I would be asked my name, and I would say “k’acksum nakwala,” and they would have written down, “Bob Joseph.” Often, I am asked if I am related to the Josephs from the Squamish First Nation, to which I usually reply, ‘No, but I’m sure we had the same Indian agent.’”
And of course, traditional names, and naming ceremonies, along with other great First Nations traditions were discouraged, and in some cases outlawed altogether and more often than not, lost to history. So, in some ways what we are doing here today is an act of rebellion. It is an act of decolonization. It is also a privilege that must be recognized as such, and therefore checked, as many are NOT afforded this privilege.
Bringing this back to the here and now, the question I ask myself is: Who am I? In the process of neti-neti or yogic self-inquiry, the inquirer is led, to whittle away the self’s understanding of themselves that have been added on in life, eventually leading to discovery of the true self. For example, as you meditate, you might focus on your foot. And you say: the foot is not me. If I didn’t have this foot, I would still be me. What then am I? Imagine your foot disappears. And now repeat this process with every part of your body: your thighs, your hands, your arms, and moving up to the head, the face, and yes, even the brain.
Just so you know that I haven’t become a Hindu mystic overnight, it might interest you to note that neti-neti (which means neither this nor that) meditation also has a very historical Christian equivalent called ‘via negativa’ in Latin, which is a way of describing things by stating what they are not, as they relate to God because God transcends all human notions of who or what she is. It is a part of the apothatic tradition and has never really left. It’s just that outside the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic worlds, these ideas have been largely forgotten and abandoned with the rise of Protestantism. But in the early church, the early church fathers, such as Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Clement of Alexandria, all understood and made use of via negativa as a method by which they might improve their understanding of God. Pseudo-Dionysius wrote: “God is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding… It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, quality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immoveable, moving or at rest. It does not live, nor is it life. It is not substance, nor is it eternity or time… there is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth – it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial.”
Who then am I? It is in this vein that people in my place operate. I identify as gender non-binary. Another way to say that is genderfluid. I exist in gendered space but I am not a part of it, and yet, I am a part of all of it. I am neither male, nor female. I am neither, yet I am both. And more, and all that falls in between. And guess what? So are you. I have genitals. My genitals are not me. If didn’t have these genitals, I would still be me. What then am I? I have a name. My name is not me. If I didn’t have this name, I would still be me. What then am I? That is what it means to be genderfluid. And that is what it means to me, and to choose a new name. It’s a part of a process of self-inquiry, self-discovery, and self-affirmation. In changing my name, I understand that my name is dynamic. It changes. It is not me, even though it is a part of me. And those who know me, know I love fashion, for instance. I love clothes. I love different outfits, for every season, and every occasion. And in a similar light, I feel like I clothe myself with my name. I feel that it’s an act of self-expression.
According to Wompsi’kuk Skeesucks, a member of the Mohegan people: “Some people are like lakes. They change very little as they age. (…) Some people are like rivers. When you trace the Mississippi, or any other river at its source, it can be very small. Later on, it can be wide and strong. When it meets the ocean, it spreads out.” In other words, names should change as the individual changes.
In my case, my name changed came from an interesting place. I was sitting in bed, low-key Googling name change procedures when Bonnie decided to shoulder-surf me and noticed what I was doing.
“Are you thinking of changing your name?” She asked.
“Um… Well, my middle name. I’ve never really liked it. It has never spoken to me. It’s not who I am.”
“Okay, well, what would you change it to?”
“Hm. Good question. I’m not sure… I guess I’d have to think about it… But maybe something Hawaiian. After all, we have some ties to Hawaii, and we have our daughter, of course (who has a Hawaiian name).” Which then prompted me to revisit some of the Hawaiian names we considered for her before we had decided on her name… And I came across: Leilani.
“That’s nice… What does it mean?”
“Heavenly flower. It can also mean child of God in a more allegorical sense.”
“That’s beautiful… Would you ever consider making THAT your first name, and Atley your middle name…”
I paused…. “I have now…”
And now, as Paul Harvey always used to say, you know, the Rest of the Story.
To finish today, I’d like to read you a poem by Welsh poet Ronald Stewart Thomas, called Via Negativa. I find it haunting, yet quite lovely and even uplifiting.
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.