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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

VDS alumna becomes Nashville’s first queer female Lutheran pastor

At her ordination Jan. 12, Dawn Bennett made history and spoke of the support that Vanderbilt Divinity School provided her.
The ordination at Christ Lutheran Church drew a crowd of loved ones and community supporters. (Photo courtesy Quentin Cox)

In a room filled with the hymns of a black gospel choir and nuns dressed in drag, Nashville’s first queer female Lutheran pastor united many last week who showed up for her ordination. While sporting rainbow Converse, Vanderbilt Divinity School (VDS) alumna Dawn Bennett celebrated her ordination on Jan. 12 at Christ Lutheran Church. 

Bennett’s journey to Vanderbilt Divinity School and becoming ordained was not easy. Born into a New England Catholic family with a father who served the church as a deacon, two gay brothers and a lesbian sister, Bennett notes the varying spiritual beliefs that influenced her throughout her life. Despite her immediate family later leaving the church, Bennett delved into advocacy work and began considering divinity school. 

“Vanderbilt comes with a reputation, and I didn’t think I fit the bill. I hadn’t been in the classroom in 25 years. I didn’t think I was capable,” Bennett said.

Rainbow striped high-top Converse sitting on church pew bench
Bennett is rarely seen without these signature rainbow Converse. (Photo courtesy Quentin Cox)

Once at Vanderbilt, she felt the support of the community, she said. With the help of VDS faculty such as Professor of the Practice of Ministry Forrest Harris, and Assistant Theology Professor Evon Flesberg, as well as Dean of VDS Emilie Townes, Bennett learned to set goals, excel academically and personally and make life-long relationships, she said. VDS also supported her when she came out as a queer woman. 

Being one of the eight queer VDS students at the time, Bennett helped start the tradition of making graduation stoles for queer members of the ministry. While she struggles with the lack of diversity in her own denomination, she praises VDS for working to address cultural and racial disparities and for striving to be LGBTQ+ inclusive.

“All of my work at Vanderbilt circled around diversity and inclusion. It circled around reconciliation,” Bennett said. “It circled around sharing and promoting and teaching the love of what I perceive to be an abundant God; an all-inclusive God; a God who celebrates every single morsel of creation.” 

Outside of Vanderbilt, the Lutheran church initially assigned her to the New England area, but after a long talk with the Bishop, Bennett was eventually assigned to Nashville.

“There’s so much spiritual harm here [in the Deep South], so much spiritual trauma here, between fundamentalism, evangelicalism, the ‘burn in hell theology’ that is very problematic for many many people, children commit suicide and families break,” Bennett said.  “I didn’t get away unscathed from that.”

Bennett in the midst of a Lutheran crowd
Bennett came to Nashville to help heal spiritual trauma within the Deep South. (Photo courtesy Quentin Cox)

As she continues her work throughout the city, she sports a tattoo formulated in the pattern of a heartbeat with four names that represent three children, including both the former and current names of her transgender son. She is also rarely seen without a religious pin of hearts in the colors of the rainbow. As a cisgender woman, she wants to spark conversation with people who might not always have the opportunity to speak out about their experiences.

“When I’m with transgender folks, I tell them that there’s a time when my sidewalk ends and yours keeps going. It’s an opportunity for me to learn about the beauty and the diversity of the world,” Bennett said.

She hopes to continue to interact with Vanderbilt through programs such as Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Trans Buddy Program and the K.C. Potter Center. She will be hosting events for LGBTQ+ youth in the Nashville area in the upcoming months.

Bennett will be working as a pastor at The Table, a new ECLA Lutheran worshipping community focused on including LGBTQ+ individuals and the formerly incarcerated, highlighting family, faith, and self-reflection. Bennett acknowledges that there were many twists and turns along her path, but that there was only one true direction for her life. 

“It’s a beautiful mess, but isn’t that God’s way?” Bennett said.

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About the Contributor
Justine Del Monte
Justine Del Monte, Former Life Copy Editor
Justine Del Monte ('22) studied Public Policy. She enjoys nature, VSG, cooking videos and talking about how she's from California. Send inquiries and Broadway-related playlists to [email protected].
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Comments (5)

The Vanderbilt Hustler welcomes and encourages readers to engage with content and express opinions through the comment sections on our website and social media platforms. The Hustler reserves the right to remove comments that contain vulgarity, hate speech, personal attacks or that appear to be spam, commercial promotion or impersonation. The comment sections are moderated by our Editor-in-Chief, Rachael Perrotta, and our Social Media Director, Chloe Postlewaite. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected].
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3 years ago

The leaders don’t have altruistic motives. Their agenda is planned to the letter and if you don’t get on the train they will run you over with it. I loath those who identify themselves first by their sexuality. The

Sue Steinau
3 years ago

ELCA has really moved away from Biblical teachings, and the Lutheran Confessions.

Ginger Fotrell
4 years ago

A wonderful article about a subject close to my heart! As a practicing member of the ELCA and also being transgender – it is so nice to know there is hope for the Church. Change is needed and Dawn is helping that journey.

Steve Henke
4 years ago

Vanderbilt Student Government

4 years ago

What is VSG?