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Why I Still Dream of Becoming a (Trans) Adventist Pastor

Serenity Selena Saldonado's Story

I come from a devout Seventh-day Adventist family. From a very young age, I knew that I was different, though I didn’t know what the term ‘transgender’ meant until high school—I was very sheltered. I didn’t even know what LGBTQIA meant (LGBTQ back then). 

In middle school, I realized I was attracted to both sexes. At the time, I was very involved at my church. I was a deacon and I traveled to sing at area churches. But as I approached puberty, I noticed that I didn’t feel “normal.” Being a good Seventh-day Adventist boy, I asked my parents for help, and they found a conversion therapy program for me. 

Here in San Antonio, Texas, there’s a huge church called Scenic Hills. One Sabbath, I felt like I needed to tell the pastor, Gabriel Perea, about my situation. I thought that I could trust him and be really honest with him. We had a conversation after church in which I was very raw and vulnerable. I told him I’d been struggling with not only same sex attraction, but also my gender identity. He told me that I had a demon— that I was being spiritually attacked by demons. I needed to pray more and get more involved in the church, he said. 

The author as a child

By this time, I knew I wanted to be a pastor—I had known that since I was very young. A couple of Sabbaths after that, the pastor invited a group to church called Coming Out Ministries (now Coming Together), including co-founder Michael Carducci. When I heard the group’s name, I thought it was an affirming organization. It sounded as though they wanted to educate the church about LGBTQ issues. I was so excited! Oh, my gosh, an affirming Adventist church, I thought. They can change the church and open people’s eyes to what we go through

At the pastor’s invitation they spoke at church, and that is when I began to suspect they were not for me— they were actually against me. 

Some time later, a medical intervention nearly killed me. I have serotonin syndrome, similar to bipolar disorder. After a suicide attempt, I was taken to a psychiatric hospital and given a medication that, because of my condition, produced far too much serotonin in my brain. My body went into shock, and I remained in intensive care for about six months. My parents never gave up hope for my recovery. The pastor of a church I attended anointed me with oil. I started to breathe without a respirator, and eventually I was able to relearn how to walk. 

I had left the church before my hospitalization, but after this experience, I started to search for God again. I watched 3ABN on YouTube and rediscovered Coming Out Ministries. I still believed them to be an affirming organization, so I reached out to them. I received an invitation to share my testimony on 3ABN, as I was still fasting and praying in hopes of changing my sexual orientation. 

I began to experience depression so severe that one night, I poured out an entire bottle of blood pressure medication. All I had to do was swallow the pills and it would be over. But it occurred to me that people would say, “Oh, he killed himself because he wasn’t strong enough to fight his battle.”

The author (right) in high school

This time, I reached out to Floyd Poenitz, the president of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, which I heard about during seminary. He offered some very practical help on getting hospitalized for my situation. 

But before all this came my Coming Out Ministries era. 

Twice a week, I attended Coming Out meetings that discussed the LGBTQ agenda—how it has been pushed on people, resulting in Christians getting arrested for standing on what the Bible says about LGBTQ people. It felt like an Alcoholics Anonymous group. One after another, we would confess, “Hey, I struggle with this.” We prayed to ask God for help with our addictions, which we were told caused our impure thoughts. Along with attending the meetings, I fasted and prayed—I really wanted to change. I went days without eating and spent long stretches of time praying, asking God to forgive me and change me. I became deeply depressed. On several occasions I reached out to Michael Carducci, telling him I was extremely depressed and  wanted to die. I was sick of it. I did not want to continue.

He prayed for me. 

Whenever I felt depressed or wanted to hurt myself, Carducci offered to pray with me and tried to encourage me however he could. But he also told me that it was not okay for me to like girlish things; God created me to be a man for a reason. If God wanted me to be a woman, he would have made me a woman. He said I was going through a spiritual battle and I just needed to exorcize the demon I had. 

Serenity Saldonado in infancy

I wanted to be myself, but he seemed to be telling me that was wrong, so I tried everything to change. I had already been hospitalized twice for suicidal ideations. Carducci told me I needed to pray more—that I needed to get more involved at church and really hang onto Jesus. 

He encouraged me to put a rubber band around my wrist, and every time that I had an impure thought, I should snap the rubber band on my wrist. Before long a bruise formed. That’s when my school, Southwestern Adventist University, got concerned. They had me talk to a school mental health counselor, and I was hospitalized  again.  

My mom is the firstborn of 16 kids. In my grandparents’ generation, in Mexico, most families wanted their firstborn child to be a boy—men carry on the family name and so on. As the firstborn, my mom had to fight for an education since my grandparents wanted her to forgo schooling and get married at a very young age. She left home and studied to become a nurse’s aide. 

My mom told me even before I came out to her as trans that each time that she was pregnant, that she literally begged God for a boy, because she didn’t want her daughter to go through the things she endured. And of course she got what she wanted—but not exactly. Though it is hard for them, my parents are trying their best to be supportive of me.

The author with family at Southwestern Adventist University

I still dream of becoming a pastor. I want to open the church’s eyes to what is going on. There are still a lot of things that the church doesn’t talk about, like the abuse that occurs within it. I want to help the church understand people like me—people who struggle, people who are LGBTQ+ and want to belong in the church. I have met so many people that wanted to be involved in church, but felt judged and rejected, and were told that they needed to change first because God did not create them to be that way. I want to be a pastor to those the church has pushed away from relationships with God and the community. I believe, and I want them to know, that God loves them unconditionally.

Edited to correct the name of Pastor Gabriel Perea, incorrectly listed as “Petra.”

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Serenity Selena Saldonado

About the author

Serenity Selena Saldonado studied theology and psychology at Southwestern Adventist University and has aspired to become an Adventist pastor since childhood. Her experiences as a trans woman in the church and with Coming Out Ministries and SDA Kinship International have informed her perspective on the conversations the church needs to be having. She lives in San Antonio, Texas. More from Serenity Saldonado.
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