[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]
The Rev. Dawn Bennett, an ordained pastor who graduated from the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, is someone who quotes the Bible in casual conversation. She also says she's not religious.
"Religion is made by humanity. I don't think God needs religion one bit," she said. Instead, she says she's a person of faith. To be a person of faith, she said, "is to believe I was created from love."
"Despite what I experience from my family, friends, my job, the world, from the legislation, I am loved," she said.
Bennett, 54, serves a majority-LGBTQ congregation at The Table, a "faith collective" in Nashville, Tennessee. She said she prefers "faith collective" to "church," because "church," to some people, is synonymous with exclusion. "We know very intimately the need for affirming faith places here in the South," she said.
A wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation has swept through the Southern states this year, and last month, Tennessee passed five bills to limit the rights of transgender people. An attorney for Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ advocacy group, told The Associated Press, "Tennessee is taking the crown for the state of hate."
Bennett said she sees the effects directly on the people she serves. "Quite frankly, people's lives are at stake," she said. "It is very difficult being here right now."
That has steeled Bennett and underscored the importance of The Table and its mission to provide a sanctuary for queer Tennesseans. Bennett also said her work is "deeply embedded in speaking truth to power, whatever the power happens to be today — Friday, it was [Tennessee Republican] Governor Bill Lee," who has supported nearly every anti-LGBTQ bill that has made it to his desk.
At The Table, Bennett provides an alternative reality to the one that exists throughout her state, and she uses Scripture to preach about belonging and inclusion. "So, you know, when somebody tells you that you don't belong here, that is a lie from the pit of hell," she said.
She described her congregation as a group of people who have experienced "religious trauma," many coming to her with stories of having been kicked out of church or told that they could come and listen but not participate.
"I'm pastoring a group that is traumatized, and I'm helping them realize that looking in the mirror, you're looking at the face of God, because Scripture says God created humanity in God's own image," she said.
Bennett was ordained last year, making history as Nashville's first queer female Evangelical Lutheran pastor. At her ordination, she wore high-top rainbow Converses. There was a gospel choir, along with nuns dressed in drag.
Her path to being ordained was a winding one. She said that she got the call to minister decades ago but that she was married then and her kids were small. Her husband at the time said he did not want to be a pastor's spouse. "It's a scary, scary thing to say no to God," she said.
More than 20 years later, she was single, her kids were grown, and she heard the call again. She answered this time.
Bennett said she has always known she is bisexual, but she didn't come out until divinity training. The faculty was supportive at Vanderbilt, where she was one of eight LGBTQ students. She focused her studies on queer theology, reconciliation, diversity and inclusion. Raised Catholic, Bennett said her father, a church deacon, taught her the importance of faith. She has two gay brothers, a lesbian sister and a transgender son. "I have a lot of skin in this game," she said.
She said she encourages congregants to view themselves as having innate worth and value, especially as anti-LGBTQ sentiment swirls around them. She tells them that regardless of their relationship with God, they are loved.
"Even if you let go of God, God has not let go of you," she said. "And it's OK, because God understands what it is to live in this world, which is not a friendly world."