206 Jonathan Williams
Writer & Pastor
“So what I ended up doing was being an incredible dick to my father. That’s what I ended up doing.”
Jonathan Williams is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Brooklyn, New York. He co-wrote his first book, She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption, with his father Paula Stone Williams.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): By the time I went to divinity school, I was already in my late 30s. Which is why I was called a “2nd career student,” which I thought was adorable because it implied I had a first career. Which I did not, unless being a complete screw up is now considered a career.
So when I was 44 and wrote a memoir that became a bestseller, I had no experience at being successful. I had no idea how to handle it or who to turn to for guidance because no one wants to hear how freaked out you feel about something most people would consider to be a good thing.
On a Monday night of that first tour, a man in the book signing line, held my book Pastrix to his chest and said “I hope this is as successful as The Shack ” and I looked at him like he had just insulted me. The Shack, if you don’t know is a Christian novel by Paul Young that sold tens of millions of copies. It’s a well-loved book that just wasn’t to my taste as I am not one to mix my religion with quite so much sentimentality.
Anyhow, that same week, after being in a different city each day and signing a gazillion books and having reporter from The Washington Post follow me around, and then having audience members wanting selfies with me, there was a headline in the Huffington Post that read Can Nadia Bolz-Weber save liberal Christianity and it brought on a small panic attack. I was on a ride that kept speeding up and nothing in my life so far had prepared me for it and I desperately needed wisdom for how to hold on.
That Saturday my publisher sent me to a Book Fair in New Orleans with 3 other authors. A mystery writer, a novelist and a historian. The novelist was a kind, older man with a warm smile whose name I didn’t catch, but who I was sat next to at Dinner. Him on my left and my editor on my right. I Asked his name and what kind of books he wrote and my editor leaned over and said…” Um, Nadia… Paul wrote a little book called The Shack.”
Later that night, I swallowed my pride and asked him if we could talk privately and I told him everything I was feeling about that week and how I just really needed some help. And he prayed for me. Right then and there. He took my hand and reminded me that God will always provide enough grace for the day I am in. It was humbling, that what I needed was to be prayed over by the guy who wrote The Shack, but it was without a doubt, exactly what I needed.
Which means, I don’t get to choose what strangers come into my life and say what I need to hear. There’s never been an Angel Catalogue. Because if we got to choose our messengers, I’m pretty sure we’d get it wrong.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber, and you’ve stepped into The Confessional. Today I’m speaking with someone who had some unlikely angels of his own. Stay with us.
NBW: Joining me in The Confessional today is Jonathan Williams. Welcome, Jonathan. What sort of regrettable, horrible things bring you into The Confessional today?
Jonathan Williams (JW): Thank you for having me on, I look forward to talking to those regrettable, horrible things. So my father was a pastor. We grew up in New York, and my father planted churches across New York. We bonded over a ton of stuff, bike rides together. He was a big runner, so I would go running with my dad all the time. Lots of ball games. I think many of the stereotypical father-son things that you would see on TV or in the movies was kind of true in my life in that I just, I just had a very present father. And I prided myself on having that kind of dad. And so, when I was growing up, it was like, “oh, you’re Paul’s son.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, I’m Paul’s son,” you know, and that was a good thing, I liked being Paul’s son.
NBW: What did it mean? Like, to be Paul’s son.
JW: People knew who my dad was. They knew who Paul was. But it meant, oh, Paul’s talented. And Paul’s, you know, someone who we all care deeply about and who we love. And so if you’re Paul’s son, it probably means the same about you. It probably means that you’re someone who has a lot of potential, right, when they grow up.
NBW: So your dad, like, continued to be this sort of figure in your life that guided you, and including you followed him into the career path of planting churches, but yours was in Brooklyn. Is that right?
JW: Yeah. I planted a church in Brooklyn almost eight years ago now. And started that, and three months into it, three months into it, my dad called, and my dad was like, “I have something to tell you.” And I was like, “all right, go ahead, tell me.” And my dad goes, “Well, I can’t tell you over the phone. I’m gonna fly out and tell you.”
NBW: Oh gosh.
JW: And I was like, “what do you mean, you’re going to fly out and tell– like, just tell me right now.”
NBW: So he really wouldn’t tell you on the phone? You couldn’t get it out of him?
JW: He wouldn’t tell me on the phone. Yeah, I couldn’t get it out of him.
NBW: What did you fear it was? I mean, surely you had the list in your head of like, oh my God.
JW: So I did. I had a list in my head, and any number of things, right, sickness or divorce or, you know, some issue, whatever. And legitimately, like legitimately, I settled on insurance fraud. I was like, I think my dad committed insurance fraud and is going away for like a few months. And that’ll be all right, we’ll make it through, you know. I don’t know why I settled on that, but that was like the thing.
NBW: I don’t know that’s like such a vanilla thing. It’s funny, okay, insurance fraud.
JW: No, I just couldn’t think of my dad doing something, like, scandalous.
NBW: When your, when your dad came to Brooklyn, where, where did you guys meet up?
JW: So we were, we were all in my apartment. Everybody came out. So it was like a family affair. And so we’re all sitting in my, my living room. And I said, “what’s going on?” And so my dad says, “I’m transgender.” And I was like, oh, and this is, you know, this is pre-, like, transgender in pop culture. So, like, no Transparent and all that. And so it took me a second to, you know, think about what that meant. And so, you know, my dad was like, “I’m going to transition to the female gender.” And so, you know, denial, denial happens immediately, and I just, I just remember sitting there being like, “this isn’t real. This, you know, I don’t think my dad is trans, like what, you know, you just don’t up and decide to become trans in your, you know, in your early 60s. It doesn’t work that way.
NBW: How did it feel to have somebody say, like, this is who your dad has always been when you had no experience of your dad that way?
JW: I felt like I was lied to. It felt like a giant lie. I got up at one point and I went in the bathroom and I, like, I, I started crying. I just, I had no inkling whatsoever that this was a possibility in my life or in my father’s life. Right. And so, I got back and my wife is there and my sisters and my mom are all there, and they’re all chatting. My wife, I asked her later on in the evening after my parents had left, I said, “what were you all talking about?” And she was like, “we started talking about purses.” And I was like, Jesus Christ. Like purses. Like, I get, you know, and it’s super, super stereotypical, right. But I was like, you know, I guess this is the new reality. And I have no idea what to do with this. None. And then, you know, for the next three or four months, I, like, deep depression.
NBW: So tell me, you know, now that you have some years on this whole experience. Like, I feel like what you’re describing to me is grief. What were you grieving?
JW: I think, I think I was grieving the loss of my dad without losing my dad. It was this really weird thing. And it’s funny, even, even my age, you know, I was, I was 31 when this all happened. And when I think about myself experiencing these things, experiencing the loss, the pain, I don’t think about myself as a 31-year-old, I think about myself as a kid. You know, it still feels like I was this kid who needed their dad.
NBW: Oh wow. Oh, wow. That’s, that’s intense.
JW: Yeah. So. So, yeah. Yeah. There’s, there’s a lot there. And so, I think because I was feeling all those things, feeling that, that loss of self, loss of my identity, loss of my safety, loss of my God, I wanted to do everything I could to hurt my dad. That’s what I wanted to do.
NBW: So this is maybe a little bit of the confessional part.
JW: Yeah. Yeah. So what I ended up doing was being an incredible dick to my father. That’s what I ended up doing.
NBW: So what did you do? I mean, what, what did you do that hurt this person you love?
JW: So, I stopped talking to her. And I told my dad that I didn’t want to know her. So I don’t want to know her, her new name, I didn’t want to meet her.So we talked every day and then we didn’t talk for nine months. And there’s the conservative Christian world, which my dad was a part of, which once my dad came out publicly, that was all taken away from her. And as it was taken away from her, there were people in that world that would call me and they would say, “you know, Jonathan, you know what’s going on with your dad? I just heard the news. Is it true? And what should I do?” And what I realized is they were asking permission. And what they were asking permission was to deny my father, right, was to deny her existence. And in essence, maybe not explicitly, but I certainly gave permission to everyone that called to not be okay with my father’s transition. I gave permission to say that this was not okay. And I probably in some ways fed my own issues into that by saying like, “yeah, I’m not sure that my dad’s fit mentally right now. I think this is a crisis of some sort. I don’t think this is real.”
NBW: Oh shit.
JW: And people would say, “yeah, you know, maybe I’m thinking yeah, maybe that’s true. And so I really regret that disservice that I did to my father. But I did it, and I did it to anybody who would ask me to do it or ask my permission to do it.
NBW: Do you ever think about just how selfish it was to have such a profound reaction about what you were losing? I mean, in a time when your father was losing so much more?
JW: Oh, my lord. Yes. Yes, it is the thing I regret. It’s the reason I’m on this podcast. It’s the reason I’m confessing it. I regret that a ton. I regret putting myself first when literally, literally she was going through life and death experience, right? You know, we know the stats around people who are trans. And we know that a great number will attempt to take their lives, and they’ll do it because they don’t have support, and here I am not only not giving my dad support, but then telling other people not to give my dad support. And, you know, just denying her existence over and over, and doing this while, you know, previously being, “Oh, I’m LGBT affirming, you know, this is, yeah, this is great. Yeah. Let me, let me help people.”
NBW: Did you feel that dissonance inside at the time?
JW: I did. I definitely did, yeah.
NBW: What did that feel like?
JW: That felt shitty because I felt like I was living another lie over on the side. Like, believing my dad’s living one lie over here, and then, oh, I’m living this lie over here on the side. Where publically I’m still like, “yeah, this is, you know, I still affirm this group.” And then privately, I’m like, “but I’m not gonna affirm my dad, ‘cause it’s a different story over here,” you know?
NBW: You know what’s fascinating about us humans is like, here you are, you’re grieving your father and you’re like, I lost my father, which means I lost strength, I lost safety, I lost reliability, all of the things that this person represented to you. Right. So you’re grieving the loss of all these things.
NBW: And so then, this is where humans are, like, make no sense, So then you’re like, okay, then I’m gonna hurt my dad. And so you don’t offer her support, you ghost, when people call and say, should we support her? You’re like, no, right. Did any of those things bring back security, safety, you know, confidence, all of the things that you were grieving losing?
JW: Of course not. Of course not.
NBW: Yeah, see, we’re– we don’t do math well. … You’ve got to get the right things in the right columns to draw a line and have it add up, you know?
JW: Absolutely. You know, it makes zero sense, you’re absolutely right. It’d be like, “no, don’t affirm my dad, I don’t affirm my dad, I want to hurt my dad, aww, I really miss my dad. I, you know, I really miss my dad.”
NBW: I mean, obviously, you’re in a different place now than then.
JW: Yeah. Yeah.
NBW: Well, how did that happen? Like, what transpired?
JW: You know, my dad and I growing up bonded over the New York Mets. We had season tickets growing up and we’d go to games together. And this particular year, the Mets were hosting the All-Star Game, and so, you know, as an olive branch or whatever, I called my dad. I said, “why don’t we go to the All-Star Game together?” And, you know, to be like old times, you know, trying to rekindle something, right, trying to, trying to find that remnant of my father again in what was like one of my, like, happiest of places or safest of places, which was the Mets game.
NBW: Of course, yeah.
JW: And so my dad said, “okay, I’ll come out.” And I said, “well, don’t come as, don’t come as you’re as yourself, come as, come as Paul. Make sure you come as Paul.” And, you know, I hear this hesitating, and like, “okay, okay.” And so, I buy these, these tickets and, and a couple of months pass, and so I call my dad maybe, you know, 10 days before the game and I say, “hey when are you coming out to New York for this game?” And my dad’s like, “I’m not gonna come.” And I was like, “you know, like, what the fuck? Like, this is, this is the Mets, this is the All-Star game, like, this is a big deal, you know, this is, this is what we do.”
Nadia [00:44:01] This is our thing, for sure.
Jonathan [00:44:03] And my dad was like, “I’m getting a surgery done.” I didn’t say this directly, but in my mind I was like, “fuck you, we’re done.” You know, we’re finished. I can’t believe that you’re not gonna do this with me. And, for me, that was it. I wrote my dad off in that, in that moment as someone who wasn’t worth knowing. And, I went to the game. I went to the game by myself. And I’m just, you know, you talk about, like, grief, it was heavy, right, cuz now I’m in the place where, you know, where we had our best moments, and and my dad’s not there.
NBW: Yeah, they’re really gone now.
JW: Yeah, they’re gone. And I’m glad. Good riddance. So I get there and I run into this acquaintance, and this acquaintance’s with another person. And this guy introduced himself as The Mayor. And so the Mayor is, is this gregarious guy. He’s a Brooklyn native. And he goes, he goes, “pastor, what’s going on with you today?” And I go, “you know, it hasn’t been a great day,”
JW: And, he goes, “ah, pastor, we’ll fix that right now. Come on. Come with me.” And so he, like, finagles his way down to the field. So, you know, for a minute, I’m not thinking about my dad, right. This mayor is, like, he’s lifting my spirits. So, you know, “another beer, pastor. Let’s watch the, oh, it’s amazing. This is amazing.” And then finally, he’s like, “pastor, you got to give me a ride home.” So the game ends. Our phones are dead because we’ve been taking pictures the whole, you know, the whole game, right. So, that’ll kill a phone. And I get a flat tire. So I pull over and, you know, it’s 12:30 at night, maybe getting closer to one now. And the mayor is like, I, you know, “pastor, I’ve never owned a car before. Like, do you know how to change a tire?” And I’m like, “yeah, yeah, don’t worry about it. It’ll be quick.” So I get all this stuff out of my car, go to change the tire and my jack doesn’t work to lift the car. Finally it’s like late at night, two hours have passed, I’m exhausted. And the Mayor, the Mayor goes, “oh, Jesus. Don’t look now, pastor, but here come two ladies of the night.” And they come up to us and they’re like, “hey, guys, how are you doing tonight?” And I, I don’t know. There was just something in me, and I just was like, “I’m not well, my dad was supposed to go to this All-Star Game with me, but my dad became transgender, and my dad decided not to go and got a surgery instead. And I feel like I lost my dad and my car has a flat tire, and I don’t have a jack for my car and I don’t know what to do, and my life is a mess,” And then one of them stops me and she goes, “Wait, did you say you need a jack for your car? Oh, I know where to get one. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” So they walk away and the mayor’s like, “pastor, this is terrible. They’re going to get people to come back and rob us. They’re going to beat us up.” And I was like, “I know.” I was like, “I know, mayor. What are we gonna do? We can’t leave the car. Like, they’re gonna, they’re gonna come back and they’re gonna rob us. It’s gonna be awful.” And all of the sudden, about ten minutes later, these two sex workers come back and they have this jack with them. And they were like, “yeah, we got the jack from the firehouse. There’s a firehouse two blocks away.” So we got back in the car and it’s, it’s like quiet. And the mayor, the mayor’s like, “pastor, what just happened tonight?” And I go, “what do you mean? Like something was redeemed or something.” And I lost it, right. I was like, oh, man. I was like, “I’ve, I’ve been an asshole to my dad.”
NBW: So when he said, “something’s been redeemed,” and you said you lost it, what was happening inside of you?
JW: I’m not sure what that was, but it was And I was like ,Here I am, like this guy, this native Brooklynite who I’ve never met before has just completely changed my life, took care of me when he didn’t even know why he was taking care of me. I’m finding security, right? That safety in unexpected places. And then there’s these two women who I absolutely made judgments about. And it was like in this surprising way, these two sex workers and this, this guy, The Mayor, gave me my security, gave me a little bit of identity, gave me safety, gave me all those things that I felt had been missing that whole time.
NBW: I mean it’s interesting that a car jack feels like such a sort of masculine item.
NBW: In our culture. And to think of like you going, “I’m not safe. I don’t have this thing, the sort of security and safety of, of a parental masculinity is gone from my life.” And then the thing that you thought had been lost, I don’t know, it feels like the car jack’s like a metaphor for it.
JW: You know, it’s interesting, like, nobody’s ever brought up the fact about the jack before. You know, nobody’s ever brought that up. Yeah. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. And I think, part of me feeling like I lost my dad was me questioning my own, not, not my gender identity, but going, like, “well if I learned about how to be a man from my father, and my father’s not a man…”
NBW: Yeah, masculinity, for sure.
JW: Yeah, am I a man, you know? So there was that there, yeah for sure. And, and it felt like that was all, you know, completely erased. It was, it was like that, that weight or that grief had been taken in that moment.
NBW: Huh. So, Jonathan, after that crazy night, did you reconcile with your dad?
JW: So, yeah, I get home, it’s like 3:30 in the morning, and I just wake up early next morning and I call my dad and I said, “what’s your name? What’s your name?” And my dad said, my dad said, “My name’s Paula.” And she goes, “it’s just, it’s one stinking letter.” And I was like, “my life is completely different because of this one letter. But I’m really glad to meet you.” And then I said, “what, you know, what should I call you?” And, and, you know, Paula said, “well, I’ve always, I’ve always been your dad. You know, I’ve always been your dad. So, call me dad.”
NBW: Wow. That’s such a nice moment, and what an incredible story. I mean, the baseball game, this mayor person, the two women you both misjudged, and then this reconciliation with your dad. I wonder, what do you think you gained from all these experiences and from having a transgender parent in your life?
JW: I’d like to think I have more empathy. You know, I was witnessed and even took part in, you know, my dad losing, losing her life in some respects. And I think, I think just a sensitivity to people who, for one reason or another, haven’t had the privilege of living their life fully. And recognizing that that’s not the case for everyone. Listen, I’m gonna be fine. You know, as a white straight cis dude in America, I’ll probably be okay. But other people won’t, so it’s time to put my shit aside over and over again so that other people can be okay. And that is the thing I’ve learned.
NBW: Do, do you also feel, like, I mean, do you have compassion for people who struggle with people in their family coming out as queer or trans or whatever? I mean, does it also kind of give you compassion for, for why that’s maybe hard? It is a huge adjustment.
NBW: Like we have to jump right away to the, to the, you know, to the everyone being okay and celebrating and supporting. And obviously that’s where people should should get to. But like maybe having compassion for the fact that some people do have a process too. And like, it’s kinda understandable why it would be a process.
JW: Yeah, I think you’re right.
NBW: And sometimes when we talk about our fucked-up process, it hastens other people’s process that doesn’t have to be as long.
JW: And honestly, that’s, that’s the prayer. The prayer is, like, let’s let somebody’s fucked-up process be a lot shorter.
JW: Yes, yes.
NBW: What’s your relationship with Paula like now?
JW: Yeah, I think, I think we’re reconciling our relationship. So Paula and I, we work together now and we work in some of the same circles, and Paula works in the progressive Christian church, and so do I, and we see each other often. And we wrote a book together. Paula is still the one I chat with about, about how do we move forward in faith or how do we move forward in what it means to love the best way we can love, or to show as much grace as we can show, or whatever the case may be. So I get to do that with, with her again. And that’s really amazing. And then in other ways, you know, we get to hike together. We mountain bike together. We ended up going to a baseball game finally together.
NBW: You did?
JW: We did, and it was dope. It was amazing. It was wonderful how absolutely easy it was, and how, Paula, bought the same stuff that she bought when she, when I was 11 years old, you know, peanuts and a soda. And we talked about the same stuff we’d always talk about. And so little by little, we get to reclaim some of the stuff that we’ve always had.
NBW: So, it’s just so, kind of, beautiful that your dad had the bravery to step into the truth of who she is. And even though, you know, you had this selfish reaction and sort of hurtful behavior for a while, that allowed you to step in to the truth of who you are more fully as well, that, I mean, in a way, she was still parenting you, right?
JW: I mean, yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head with that. I think my dad taught me what it means to be a man, even though my dad never felt like a man.
NBW: Well, thank you so much for joining me. I’m really grateful that you would, you would share this story, because, I mean, even with all the stories I hear, I just think, oh, my gosh, there have to be people out there who think they’re alone, you know, and they’re not in this experience.
NBW: All right. Well, bless you. Thank you so much for being on, I really appreciate it.
JW: Thanks for allowing me to share my story. I appreciate that.
NBW: A blessing for Jonathan,
Jonathan, you said that when your dad came out, it felt like a very young version of yourself was grieving.
Like you’d created a spreadsheet of boyhood gains and losses, and the loss column was filling up faster than your 8-year-old self could make sense of what was happening.
But Jonathan, those imaginary spreadsheets we keep in life are totally understandable but seldom accurate.
So, as a blessing, I’d like to shake up your spreadsheet like an 8-year-old boy shakes an etch a sketch.
Not to erase it, because nothing in an etch a sketch goes away, the aluminum powder inside just returns to its original state. The internal contents stay the same.
So, I want to shake the contents of your own story and then deftly turn the right knob and then the left to draw you and your dad at a Mets game, and then give it a shake. And then draw the moment she taught you to ride your first bike, and then the time she gave you the sex talk.
I would draw these and then shake them clear so you could see every gift from your dad — every ball tossed from her gracious hand that landed in your unsure glove. Every meal made and advice given and example set. Every single one of these gifts has always been yours to keep. The internal contents remain the same. You don’t ever lose that.
And in the end, I want to draw you a picture of yourself as a man.
Because Paula did teach you what it means to be one, Jonathan, because she showed you what brave looks like, what sacrifice looks like, and what love looks like.
And nothing can take that away.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional…
Amber: And my attachment to success prevented me from doing the one thing that I value the most in my life, which is showing up for other black women.
NBW: The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media, with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.