Love. Life. Loss. Legacy.

Death is not an easy concept to understand. It comes and sweeps all sense of stability from you, it takes your comfortability and shakes you up.

In my life, I can count on both hands the people close to me who have died. I can think back to the funerals, the families, the cemetery, the feeling of being lost.

I was ten years old when I lost my uncle. It was the first time I can remember having special memories with the person that died. It is the first time I truly sat in silence, a mental slideshow running through my mind with snapshots of the time we spent together.

Today, I lost a close friend – her name was Jorja. My first memory of Jorja is at the Metropolitan church in my town – my family slowly crept into the church, wanting to experience something new, but feeling a little awkward. Jorja was the one who greeted us and welcomed us in. Here started the journey to a wonderful and meaningful relationship cut far too short.

A few months later: Walking into our home church and suddenly my dad points out, “That’s Jorja. Remember her? She was at the Metropolitan church.”

“The transgender one? She was so nice! Can we say hi?” It was at this point that Jorja became a stable and welcome part of my life.

Jorja’s testimony is one of amazing re-creation in the eyes of God. Jorja finally found herself in her late fifties, and celebrated her third birthday this year. She has spoken to many other churchgoers about who she is without hesitation, guilt, or remorse.

Jorja has shown me how to be proud. She showed me to stand up and say, “Yeah World, it’s me. I’m beautiful and you can’t take any part of me away.”

Jorja taught me what it means to be a good ally. She taught me how to stand up for her, my gay brother, and my nonbinary best friend. She showed me that anger is not the only resource, and I can have a calm voice in all the turmoil.

Today, I lost a great friend. I lost the woman who means more to me than most. The woman who was an active part of my life for two years.

Today, I feel sad. I feel overwhelmed and confused and sad. I walked into my Spanish class, saw the faces of some close friends, and broke down. I sat in my seat, trying to do my bell ringer, and the tears began to fall. One friend grabbed my hand, another wrapped her arm around my neck, a third patted my cheek. I wanted to go home and curl up in a ball and cry until I couldn’t cry anymore.

Instead, I smiled a small smile at my friends, wiped my tears, and finished conjugating Spanish verbs.

It sucked.

I was surrounded by friends and comfort, and all I could think about was Jorja’s face when we went to see her at the hospital last month. All I could see was her face as she blew out her candles at her last birthday party. All I could see was her face as she stood in front of the Metropolitan church and gave her testimony and praised God. I felt all her hugs and cheek kisses. I heard her gentle voice — saying hello, asking how I was, telling us she had stage IV cancer of the tongue.

All I can hear is her trying to speak to us with the tube in her throat and needle through her tongue. All I see is her shaky handwriting asking my dad if she’s in Dallas.

I hear her say “I love you. God bless” to each of my family members as we stood around her hospital bed.

Jorja, you have been in my life for some of the worst moments. You have been here for some of the best. You were there for the mundane and the exciting. You became a part of our church family, and found your way into our hearts. You mean so much to all of us.

In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda “Death doesn’t discriminate/ Between the sinners and the saints/It takes and it Takes/And we keep loving anyway”

To one of the saintliest people I know – you never stopped loving, and I won’t either.

I remember your stories of people who shut you out in ignorance – and your door was open to them. You never spoke ill of them, and you were ready to accept them back into your life. You didn’t force them to come to you, you showed them the open door and backed away to wait for them to make their own decision.

That is your legacy, and it is one of the most honorable. Everyone who knew you was blessed by your kindness and acceptance, and I hope to continue that in your name.

Death is hard. It will come and make everything tilt, off kilter, everything will feel wrong.  Feel it. Allow yourself to feel sad, to feel the pain. Cry. Scream.

And remember. Watch the slideshow. Think about the jokes, and the serious conversations, and the last moments.

I will continue Jorja’s legacy. I will live my life the same way she did. I will open all the doors I have kept shut, and see what happens.

Why I Hate Celebrity Culture, But Stand With Caitlyn Jenner

I really don’t like celebrity culture. I don’t really care who is dating whom or if their current relationship may be on the rocks. I don’t get how some people get caught up in the goings-on of complete strangers. I am baffled at how people are so concerned about the activities of the royal family.

When it comes to gossip, I just don’t care. It is bad enough supermarket tabloids seem to proliferate, but when places that are supposed to be journalistic spend significant portions of time talking about the life and times of celebrities I get discouraged. I think we are too consumed with the lives of others, especially those who are considered to be famous.

There is a part of me that is cynical and jaded when it comes to celebrities. I tend to assume everything they do is a grab for attention or notoriety. I am often suspicious of even good things celebrities do: “They must be about to release something new and they need to garner some goodwill.”

But I do like stories. I like to hear about people’s lives and their experiences. Additionally, I appreciate when someone who has an audience or an influence is willing to share their story in the hopes of aiding others.

So even though I get upset with our culture’s obsession with celebrity, I appreciate when those celebrities are able to provide help, hope, and encouragement for others.

Which brings me to Caitlyn Jenner.

My initial response with anyone associated with the Kardashians is to think it’s all about attention. My initial response when a celebrity does something so drastic is to think they must be trying to get themselves back into the news.

And maybe that’s true. But it doesn’t matter. The reason behind this celebrity doing this thing at this time is irrelevant.

Caitlyn Jenner is going to do good for a lot of people. And chances are you don’t get it. But you don’t need to. You do, however, need to get this:

There are people who are struggling with their gender identity who do not feel safe enough to talk about it. Many of those people internalize their struggle and decide to live a life they know is not honest, but it is what everyone expects of them. Some turn to risky behaviors to find some way to relieve the stress that continues to build up inside. And many turn to suicide because not only can they not reconcile who they are, they have no one to turn to who will listen to them.

So when people post insults on social media, call Caitlyn an “it,” or refuse to acknowledge that Caitlyn is a woman, people who are questioning their own gender identity are learning how dangerous it is to ask their questions out loud.

Which is why I am glad Caitlyn is doing this so publicly. She will be ridiculed. She will be mocked. But she will be talked about. Gender identity will be talked about. Other people, famous or not, will begin to follow her example and speak up about their own experiences. Those who suffer in silence may possibly be encouraged by someone willing to suffer in public.

You may not agree with what Caitlyn Jenner has done. You may not understand the struggle of gender identity. You may be weirded out by this whole story.

And all of that is okay. As long as you remember this: everyone does not have the same story you do. There are people in our schools and in our churches and in our workplaces who are trying to figure out where they land on the gender spectrum and they need to know they have safe places to talk.

The response to the Jenner story has been largely sickening. The insults and disrespect she has been shown are nothing short of dehumanizing. This is especially sad when that response comes from Christians. Jesus, who came to seek and save the lost, would not shut the doors on anyone who is honestly searching what their journey in life should be. Unfortunately, many Christians and churches have essentially shut the door on the people who need us the most. We have done this with our words of insult and exclusion. I pray our words will change and we will be known as a people of refuge.

I don’t like celebrity culture. I think we spend too much time thinking and talking about the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

But I stand with Caitlyn Jenner.

Because I stand with the young people I have talked to who have questioned their own gender identity.

Because I stand with people who are too afraid to speak up about their struggle for fear of being ridiculed and excluded.

Because I stand with all who feel they have no voice and they need someone to speak up for them.