Ubiñas: Transgender Day of Visibility another opportunity to remember Diamond Williams

Sat Nov 14, 2015 A small group of mourners met at the St. Miriam Cathedral in Flourtown to pay their final respects and lay to rest Diamond Williams, a transgender woman. The service was officiated by Monsignor James St. George who offered his church and cemetery for the funeral.

It was raining steadily the other day when I stood over Diamond Williams’ grave.

Last time I was there, in 2015, Williams’ ashes had been buried just days before. The sun was setting as I stood by the fresh gravesite and whispered a long overdue farewell to a transgender woman who had found little solace in life.

This time, fittingly on Transgender Day of Visibility, there was a headstone. And even though I knew that the pastor of St. Miriam Pro Cathedral in Flourtown, who had so graciously donated the plot, had planned to put one in, the epitaph took me by surprise:

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.”

The Rev. James St. George later told me that the idea to include the verse came to him when the initial plan to just include Williams’ name on the stone struck him as woefully inadequate.

“If anyone deserves no torment, it’s someone like her, who was literally tormented to death,” said "Father Jim."

In July 2013, police said, the 31-year-old Williams was killed and dismembered by Charles Sargent, a man who picked her up for sex. Sargent is accused of making seven trips to dump her body parts in a weedy lot on a desolate stretch of Old York Road in Hunting Park.

Sargent remains imprisoned, awaiting trial. His next court date is in December.

As a journalist, you write about a lot of people. Inevitably, some stick with you more than others. I never met Williams, but I found myself drawn to her as much because of what she endured in life as what has emerged from her death.

After Williams’ ashes sat in the Medical Examiner's Officer for more than a year following her cremation, I put out a plea for someone to come forward. First, GALAEI, a queer Latino social-justice organization in North Philly, claimed her ashes, and then Father Jim opened his church and its cemetery for her.

It was a better ending than I could have hoped for, but I continued to think about her.

I thought about her again last week, on Transgender Day of Visibility.

It seemed like a good day to pay my respects to a woman who struggled her whole short life to be seen and accepted, so I got in my car and headed out.

As I drove to Flourtown, I hoped that her family had a change of heart and had maybe found their way to her gravesite. But church staffers and Father Jim said that as far as they knew, they hadn’t.

Still, the more I talked with Father Jim, the more I realized that Williams' death has brought about something else. Something that a New York Times story about a synagogue’s acceptance of a young transgender girl described this weekend as “a powerful message about what religious institutions can be.”

The decision to claim Williams tested Father Jim as much as it tested his Old Catholic parish.

The day he made the call about donating the funeral and the plot, he asked himself whether he was ready to receive whatever came from the decision.

After burying Williams, St. Miriam’s lost a couple of parishioners, just as Father Jim suspected it would. But it also gained some: a transgender woman and a transgender teen.

“Sometimes God helps us to grow by pruning,” he said. “It was important for us to not just talk the talk of inclusion, but walk it as well.”

It’s a message he continues to share from his pulpit, most recently after President Trump’s travel ban, when he told his congregation that he wouldn’t hesitate to protect any refugee who came to its doors.

“What we say and do at the altar is meaningless if we don’t welcome you at the door,” he told me later.

Anyone who doubted that his words would be matched by actions needed only to listen to his sermon that January day and then walk to the Williams gravesite:

"The greatest threat to Christianity is when Christians try to sneak into heaven without ever ... knowing what it is like to sacrifice for someone else. It is when we tear out the pages of the gospel and distort it against others."

Father Jim was blunt. Anyone who disagreed was wrong. As a church, they would stand up for those who are different and afraid, he preached. Parishioners stood and clapped.

Even if Williams' family never comes to visit, Father Jim said, he likes to believe she is at peace.

“I think Diamond has found a good home here,” he said.

I think anyone who walks through the doors of St. Miriam Pro Cathedral has found a good home.