As many young adults do, Nicole Garcia had a crisis of faith in college. While studying at the University of Colorado Boulder, the Latina student took several Chicana Studies classes and was confronted with the violent history of the Catholic faith she was raised in.“Through the Doctrine of Discovery, the church was able to murder millions of Native people in this country, and steal [their land] and enslave them,” she says. Combined with the rigid hierarchical structure and patriarchy intrinsic to Catholicism, she realized she’d had enough and left the church. “I realized that I wasn’t Catholic out of faith. I was Catholic out of necessity.”

If you met Reverend Garcia today, it’s clear her faith is no longer out of necessity. Now an outspoken Lutheran pastor, licensed counselor, and faith work director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, Garcia became the first transgender Latina to be ordained as a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2019, and has since led local congregations and worked to spread a message of inclusivity to communities across Colorado and the nation. She’s as enthusiastic to discuss characters peppered throughout the Bible—such as Joseph and Deborah—whose queerness has been erased from mainstream Christian theology as she is to offer a history lesson on Martin Luther and the 95 Theses. And she does all of this, with a big smile, a bright floral shirt, and surrounded by welcoming posters and pride flags.

But, for Garcia, finding faith again meant being her true self. And that was not always easy. Garcia, who is a transgender woman, struggled to find her path in life early on. Growing up in the Boulder area, she went on to study Political Science in college but ended up in retail management for over a decade. Eventually, in 1994, she married and in 1997 took a job as a corrections officer at the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, a prison within the Colorado Department of Corrections. “It was a stable job,” she says. “It was a good job to get good benefits.” Most importantly for Garcia, “I finally learned how to be the man that everybody told me I should be—wearing a uniform, bossing people around.”

In late 2002, Garcia had reached a breaking point. “I was just incredibly miserable,” She describes. “I hated my job, hated my marriage, hated everything.” This realization sparked a period of intense transition. Over the course of the next year, Garcia says, “I got divorced, bought another house, started seeing a therapist, and realized that I was trans.”

Garcia re-found her faith during this period. She joined the St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Denver and felt immediately drawn in by the community’s theology, which focuses on community rather than sin and repentance. “It’s heaven is around us.” She explains, “All we have to do is to love God, love ourselves, and love our neighbors. We have to live in community to help them support and love each other. And that’s how we will be successful. That’s essentially Lutheranism.” Garcia’s re-engagement with religion went hand-in-hand with her transition. In the Lutheran tradition, she explains, “I don’t have to prove my worth to God because my worth is already proven to God.”

She especially loved the Lutheran commitment to LGBTQ+ rights and became very involved with Lutherans’ Concerned/North America—now known as ReconcilingWorks—a coalition of Lutherans who advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church.

She ended up staying with the Department of Corrections while she transitioned and got involved in the Lutheran faith, working in the parole department for 11 years. She was good at her work—her clients had a lower rate of going back to jail—but at a certain point, she says, “I could no longer participate in a system that is stacked against those who are incarcerated.”

Still committed to helping people, she received her master’s in counseling in 2014 from the University of Colorado Denver, followed by a master’s in divinity in 2018 from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. While she worked professionally as a counselor and pastor in Boulder, she did not forget the people knew at the Department of Corrections. To this day, she still volunteers with New Beginnings Worshipping Community, a Lutheran mission church that holds in-person worship services inside Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, and supports inmates of faith during their detention.

Since April 2022, Garcia has been organizing for the National LGBTQ Task Force—the nation’s oldest LGBTQ advocacy group—helping coordinate the nonprofit’s Creating Change Conference in late February, a pillar of the nonprofit’s programming. She led the faith track, “Practice Spirit, Do Justice,” working with spiritual leaders of many faiths to create an interfaith coalition working towards LGBTQ+ rights. Amid a wave of anti-trans and -LGBTQ legislation cropping up around the country, Garcia has also been busy with trips to New York, San Francisco, and Florida advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion in legislative sessions. Most recently, she testified in a Colorado House committee in favor of HB 23-1057, the Fair and Friendly Restroom bill.

Her upcoming schedule remains just as busy. Alongside the task force, Garcia says she’s monitoring the progress of H.R. 734: Protection of Women and Girls Sports Act of the 2023 US House of Representatives, which seeks to restrict the participation of trans girls and women in athletics. If needed, she will fly out to D.C. to testify. In April, she also plans to convene with leaders of LGBTQ+ welcoming organizations, like ReconcilingWorks and Transmission Ministry Collective at the Activist Theology Retreat in North Carolina.

Garcia understands that spiritual traditions, especially Christianity, have not always been the most welcoming to the queer community. “There has been so much religious trauma,” She says. “[For example, certain congregations] want people to live in a narrow definition of gender. And once you find that narrow definition and fulfill everything you’re supposed to, [they say] then you will be happy. Bullshit. People are too complicated and too messy to fit nicely into perfect little boxes.”

To that same end, Garcia denounces the misconceptions that someone cannot be LGBTQ+ and Christian, or a Christian supporter of LGBTQ+ communities—and hopes to be a light for others in building more inclusive communities of faith. “It is sometimes a challenge of being a trans pastor. But I have a very, very, very deep faith. And it carries me through,” She says. “I believe I can be an example for a lot of people to have a full complete life.”