I’m not sure I even know what I do. It’s mostly events-based. I co-ordinate and help run different initiatives in the church. This can be anything from a service to a festival or book fair or music event.
How did I learn all the skills I need? Slowly. You build on your experience, one step at a time. I’m naturally a very creative person; so I apply that to anything I do. I look for a solution to problems using the ingenuity I have to overcome obstacles.
I like to learn things. If I don’t know how to do it, give me 15 minutes, then I practise; if I need help, I talk with a specialist in that area. Before I went to my first DJ gig, I spent hours practising in my bedroom. I learn online, by listening to people talk, documentaries.
When I started drag, how do I do the make-up? I practised in my bedroom, over and over again, looking at how other people did it. Some skills I was born with: I’m very good hosting, talking on the mic. I’m the comedian of the family. Other skills I’m just developing and learning.
I did my degree in fashion and the arts, and what you’re taught at art school fundamentally is how to adapt. Part of that’s also not being afraid to ask for help; not thinking you’ve got everything sorted out; opening up to criticism and constructive advice.
Working in fashion was never a goal. I knew when I started doing fashion there was something missing in alignment in terms of my spirituality — being able to help, in a wider sense. But I still love it, and I set up the machine and make all my own clothes, and other drag artists’ clothes. I have to do that because I’m tall: six foot five inches. When you stack on a heel and wig, imagine that walking down the street towards you . . . Quite terrifying.
My specific fashion studies were in footwear, and I worked in Northampton with some of the real-life people there. Oh yes, I know the film Kinky Boots.
I attended St James’s for the first time on the first Sunday of 2019, and never left. I felt instantly at home. St James’s has an incredible spirit of inclusivity and warmth. A place that says, “You belong, and you are loved.” Who doesn’t want to be a part of a place like that?
One for the key things I love about the church is its openness. This quality seeps its way into everything. It creates an all-embracing, rigorous theology that encourages us all to explore and find God within scripture and our lives. It says to the world that we don’t have everything figured out, but, by the grace of God and our willingness to listen, we can build a better world for each other, rooted in kindness, compassion, and love.
Soul at Saint James is a monthly outdoor gospel festival in the courtyard, in collaboration with the fantastic Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir. When we first had the idea of the event, we were trying to reimagine what church could look like for everyone. Some people have a real issue with crossing the threshold of a church, because of past trauma or alienation; so, by producing this event outside, using the incredible uplifting power of gospel music, we’re trying to say: “Welcome, whoever you are, and wherever you come from.”
Circus Spirit, undergoing a rebrand at the moment, is a group of twenties-to-thirties young folk in the church who are interested in all the ways their spirituality defines their interaction with the world. Through eco-justice, racial equality, LGBTQ+ issues, and more, it’s a safe space for them to ask questions and challenge what they believe, while being planted in a loving community. Sometimes, we host some cabaret evenings at the church, and we recently had drag night for the first time, called Preach [News, 9 March]. It got a lot of conservative hatred, but I wear that as a badge of pride.
The advantages of being in central London? The people. You are constantly visited by people from all over the globe, and the stories people bring into the sanctuary of the church are incredible. By the time they leave, hopefully, they feel as though they have a new place in London where they’re welcome to come any time.
Some of the congregation here go back 30 years, but then there are people who are in central London for the weekend and want to pop in for a service. We have to be willing to receive both types. There are lots of social activities for every day, welcoming guests from over the world. Any given Sunday, there are so many people there we haven’t seen before. It really helps a church to understand what it means to be open-hearted, and forces you to think about how we present ourselves to the outside. Do people feel truly welcome if they’re stepping in for the first time?
Disadvantages? I don’t know. . . Traffic?
Ah . . . Barbara. I’ve been a professional drag queen in London for the past ten years. Being a part of the LGBTQ+ community — the “Alphabet Mafia” as I like to call us — means that the relationship between my spirituality and my queerness is very important to me. Visibility, as we know, is incredibly important, but, for the past few centuries, the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people has meant that the narrative broadcast to our community from “the Church” has been: “You’re not welcome as you are.”
Barbara is a culmination of my queerness, love of fashion, and just a dash of my over-the-topness all rolled up into an eight-foot diva.
Oh, she’s cheap: you can see her wherever they’ll pay her — a club in Soho, lots of pubs. It’s mostly evening and night-time work, and then I’m doing different things in the day; so, yes, it can be very tiring. I’m probably very tired all the time. When you’re your own boss, you have to manage your time, and it’s a stream of different things: every day, a different thing.
When she’s 80? She will be just as fabulous and, hopefully, have shown a few other people that who they are can fit like a glove with their spirituality.
I grew up in the Deep South in the USA. I was home-schooled for a large part of my life by my mother, who made our education as varied and as interesting as David Attenborough on a kelp farm. I’m very thankful to her for investing so much time in my and my sister’s life.
We moved to the UK when I was 14 to help start a church in Edinburgh. Honestly, I think it’s the American mindset: even my parents and sister now, with hindsight, do slightly laugh about it. What made us think Edinburgh needed another church? We weren’t going to the outer deserts of Mongolia. I can only think that we were part of a family of Charismatic Evangelical churches around the globe, and they saw it as an expansion of the ministry.
It was difficult, leaving friends and family, but I’ve always been quite an adventurous person, and it was exciting being somewhere new. Edinburgh is quite a liberal city, massively into the arts, the Tattoo and the Festival, independent trade. It was incredibly freeing after that Deep South, very Bible-belt, Charismatic Evangelical Christianity. I count my lucky stars that I came here when I did.
I think the times in my life when I’ve felt closest to God have been in the stillness of a moment — when there is a peace that settles for a brief while on you, and you feel held. I think that that experience has helped me to trust, to lean in on moments that might scare me, trusting that it will all be OK in the end.
I feel angry when I see religious people concerned with things that just don’t matter.
I’m happiest when I see people laughing. Laughter and joy speak so eloquently to the heart of God.
When a friend calls your name: that’s the most reassuring sound to me.
What gives me hope for the future is the fundamental truth that love can transform anything.
I end all of my prayers with the words: “God, your will be done in my life.”
If I could choose to be locked in St James’s with anyone, I’d like it to be with Ella Fitzgerald. We would sing together and arrange wild flowers in the autumn.
Elijah Kinne was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.