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Friday, December 5, 2014

Grace Under Fire Award Recipient: Outstanding Seminarian: Ashley Moore

Ashley Moore

Ashley Wai’olu Moore, founder of the all-transgender Transcendence Gospel Choir, was born in Richmond, California on October 21, 1966. Music has played an essential, perhaps even life-saving role for Ashley. Despite several difficult childhood experiences, Ashley found joy, and experienced spirit through music, wearing out her parents’ records on her little toy record player. She taught herself to play the drums when she was just three and a half years old, and has played a variety of instruments ever since. Ashley described her struggles with gender as being present from the age of four, and the resulting shame very connected to the faith beliefs she was exposed to.

Ashley grew up with a mix of religious/spiritual beliefs. Her mother came from a long line of Southern Baptists, while her father was a Native American descendent of the Pueblo tribe, influenced heavily by Catholicism. Two-Spirit traits were evident down through the indigenous Pueblo blood line, and caused conflicts within her birth family. At an early age, her parents moved the family to a farm in the Central Valley to prepare for what they believed was impending apocalypse, sparking a series of moves around Northern California that left Ashley changing schools nearly every year. When she was in fourth grade, her father and mother separated. Ashley eventually discovered that her father struggled with his own sexual and gender identity, which fueled his addictions and resulted in the tumultuous, violent, and unstable home life she had come to know. She was told that his struggles were “a sickness, a sin, and an abomination before God.” From that moment on, Ashley began to actively hide her gender conflicts and internalized the belief that it was not of God.

At 12 years old, Ashley started writing not just music but her own lyrics, which were a journal of her experiences of being bullied and having such a tumultuous family life. Simultaneously, Ashley experienced her first call to ministry, which she quickly dismissed because of her belief that she was an abomination.

While attending Berklee College of Music, Ashley studied ethnomusicology and began reading about psychology and world religions, expanding her notions of God. She left behind her Christian roots and became a “Universalist thinker” and very politically active. Due to her natural talent for sound mixing and musicianship, she left school early and embarked on a busy and prestigious career as a sound engineer and producer whose work has received 9 Grammy nominations. She was self-employed for 25 years, working with all manner of performers, rock stars, and local acts alike. In her own music, she strived to capture spiritual experiences from around the world, and always felt most taken by and influenced by African-American music, including rhythm and blues (R&B) and jazz, but interestingly was never particularly interested in gospel music.

By December 1997, Ashley was embarking on the American dream with her then-wife—buying a house and working non-stop on exciting music projects, but the increasing pain around her gender conflicts began to take a heavy emotional toll and she began to contemplate suicide. Luckily, she began researching transgender people on the internet and came out to her then-spouse as a transgender woman in February 1998.

In 2000, a series of faith experiences led Ashley to begin discerning a call to create a music ministry for transgender people. This led her to explore the City of Refuge UCC, then located in San Francisco, as a possible church home in September 2000. Then, as a new member of City of Refuge, Ashley launched the Transcendence Gospel Choir, the first all-transgender Gospel choir, on March 28, 2001. Transcendence was featured in the documentary “The Believers,” which documents the beginnings of the choir as well as its pivotal role in passing the resolution “Affirming the Participation and Ministry of Transgender People within the United Church of Christ and Supporting their Civil and Human Rights” at the 2003 UCC Synod. The choir also performed at the Synod, demonstrating the presence and power of transgender people already involved in the UCC denomination. The choir was invited to sing at many LGBT events, including at the opening of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, as well as multiple pride festivals, including in front of 7,000 people at Toronto Pride. In 2007, the choir received an invitation to sing at World Pride in Jerusalem, but because of conflicts arising in Lebanon, was unable to attend.

In 2004, Ashley joined forces with Dr. Kathleen McGuire (then director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus) to create the world's first international Trans/Genderqueer Mass Choir at the VII Festival International GALA Chorus' event in Montreal, Canada

Although Ashley has not been involved with the Transcendence Gospel Choir since late 2007, she has continued to serve faith communities in their music ministries. including serving as Music Director of several other Bay Area churches (including an ecstatic interfaith service held at a local night club) and was part of the ministry team at Tapestry Ministry in Berkeley. She has also worked, as a sound engineer and performer, on gospel albums for City of Refuge and the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco. She donated both her studio and $20,000 of her time to create Transcendence’s Grammy-nominated 2003 album Whosoever Believes, which won a 2004 OutMusic Award. She is a music collector as well as a musician, boasting records from around the world as well as rare and bootleg versions of Bob Marley and Prince, among others.

Ashley counts many influences, including insights from quantum physics and various indigenous practices as informing her faith life. She describes herself as  a Christian panentheist and feels very connected to Jesus and the message of the Gospels. She describes much of her journey as being led by God to be herself, to trust in God’s calling for her, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense.
Ashley is currently a third-year minister-in-training at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, and will graduate with a Master of Divinity and Certificate of Sexuality and Religion. She serves as the Music Director at First Congregational Church of Oakland and as Pastor in training at St. Paulus Lutheran Church in San Francisco. She has served on the board of directors for the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns from 2006 to 2007, has been a featured speaker on transgender issues across the country, and has contributed to the compilation Transgendering Faith, describing the intersection of her transgender identity and ministry. This October, Ashley will, for the third time, be designing and leading opening worship for the Transgender Religious Leader’s Summit in Berkeley, California. She does not view her calling or ministry as either trans-specific or Christian-specific, and is interested in exploring the intersection of science and faith as a possible next step in her journey. She is looking forward to stepping out into faith and to find her next miracle.

(This biographical statement written by Kelsey Pacha from information provided by Ashley Moore.)