Since Vica Steel was a child, she has dreamed of becoming a priest, of forging a path to church leadership. But she had abandoned that dream long ago. She felt out of sync with her Catholic upbringing. She felt out of sync with herself back then.
Clarity came to her two and a half years ago after Ms. Steel, a married elementary school teacher who lives in Madison, Wis., found herself experiencing such severe anxiety that she landed in the emergency room with what she thought was a heart attack. It was not.
Working with a counselor, she realized that she had struggled with coming to terms with her identity for most of her life. She came out as a transgender woman soon afterward. Her wife accepted her. Her family took her.
Ms. Steel said the urge to explore a new calling was already building. And though many of her school colleagues and students supported her, she said she felt backlash from some quarters in the school district, especially over her use of student-designated bathrooms. A spokesman for the Madison Metropolitan School District, Tim LeMonds, said the issue was Ms. Steel’s use of a student bathroom, not gender. Ms. Steel said it was a common practice among faculty, adding that the adult bathrooms were too far away from her classroom.
There was always one place dear to her that she believed would never accept her despite all of this, until now.
At 56, Ms. Steel retired in June from her career as a public-school teacher for nearly 24 years. This month, she began studying at Wartburg Theological Seminary, in Dubuque, Iowa, on a scholarship to become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or E.L.C.A.), a major denomination of the Lutheran church that allows L.G.B.T.Q. clergy members. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)
Was there a moment that you felt compelled to pursue this path?
It was October 2020, when the Lutheran seminary in Chicago was offering a whole week of courses that prospective students could sit in on. That was such an incredible revelation. That’s when I really heard that level of discourse: The E.L.C.A. branch is not just questioning, but acknowledging, the ways that harm has been done, and is still being done, in the name of the church, and is working to change that. It made me realize, “Oh. Yes. This is something I could probably think about doing.” And then it was just stepped by step from there.
What prompted the idea of preaching?
I feel like I have an opportunity to do something compelling.
What drew you to the Lutheran church?
A friend in Minnesota wrote to talk to me about how welcoming her church is. I do love the rituals and traditions that I grew up with. And the Lutheran church has those same or similar rituals and ceremonies.
But what I loved about the E.L.C.A. is explicitly they’re working so hard to be radically inclusive. They’re asking all the right questions. They’re really thinking it through. They’ve got a queer-affirming team that’s doing the work. And I think there’s a lot to do.
Have you always been religious?
As a child, I imagined myself becoming a priest or becoming some kind of spiritual leader in the Catholic church. Probably up to around 14, I stayed active. I read the readings and the gospel in the mass. I served as an altar boy. But I also knew, without really having the words for it, I didn’t fit. I became aware that the church didn’t have room for someone like me and all that I was. I just couldn’t stay with it. And I started feeling that distance. No religion at that time that I know of was welcoming or inclusive to queer or trans folks.
Is spirituality a defining feature for you?
From my teen years, I started calling myself everything from “fallen Catholic” to “atheist” to “agnostic” or simply pushed thoughts of religion away. By the time I was in my 30s, I was beginning to call myself spiritual. Even though I’m entering the Lutheran tradition, the core of that work is spiritual, above everything else. And when I proceed to become a pastor, I really want a world where it’s just, “We’re here to worship and love together.”