After winning her election to the state Senate in an 80-20 landslide and becoming an overnight sensation, Kim Jackson woke up the next morning and milked her goat.
“Those mornings when it’s chore time have essentially ensured that I not only have chore time, but I have some real reflection time and real spiritual grounding time,” Jackson told Sojourners.
In November, Rev. Kim Jackson, an Episcopal priest, won a seat representing Georgia’s District 41 in the state Senate. Her election is celebrated as the first out LGBTQ person elected to Georgia’s state Senate — one of several that earned national attention for LGBTQ inclusion in politics. None of this, Jackson said, would have been possible without role models who taught her what she could become.
“My freshman year I had an 8 a.m. religion class, and one day the professor did an entire lecture on women in ministry. I raised my hand very boldly and said ‘Women can’t be in ministry,’ and he said ‘Let’s talk after class.’ That literally changed my life’s trajectory,” Jackson said. “[H]e connected me to my chaplain who literally put me in his car, drove me around Greenville, S.C., and introduced me to women who were serving as pastors.”
But being introduced to a clergywomen wasn’t quite convincing enough. Jackson needed to see that it was possible not just for women, but for Black women.
“When I could see a Black woman, who looked like me, who was doing the stuff I was told I couldn’t do, it changed things for me. There was kind of this breaking open of new possibilities, but also a feeling of coming back home to what I always knew to be true,” she said. “I had always known that I was called to be a pastor, and that experience was like allowing me to come back home to that knowledge.”
‘I fell in love with the Eucharist’
Before becoming a pastor, Jackson had to again reconcile what she was taught with what she knew to be true, this time with her sexuality.
“For me, theologically, I got it. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God loved me, that God loved all of me, I was super clear about that,” she said of being a lesbian. “What I was less clear about: Was there a place for me in the established church as an out person? That felt a whole lot less certain, and really painful.”
Her journey toward ordination began with a sign that read, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” and arrows that led to a parking lot.
“I was standing in the parking lot trying to figure out ‘How do I get into this place?’ and a lesbian couple, they were holding hands, they got out of their car and walked across the parking lot. I was like, ‘Oh, there are lesbians at church, this is cool and unbelievable,’” Jackson said. The church service itself was where Jackson began to feel at home. “I fell in love with the Eucharist, essentially, and learned about the Episcopal Church after that.”
In 2010, Jackson became the first out Black person ordained in the Atlanta diocese of the Episcopal Church. In October, Jackson celebrated her first anniversary with Church of the Common Ground. They describe themselves as a “church without walls,” not as a figurative slogan, but because they actually do not have a church building.
Church of the Common Ground is made up of 50-60 core congregants, all of whom have experienced homelessness and around 90 percent of whom are currently unhoused. Before the pandemic, they held foot clinics, massaging and washing each other’s feet; currently, they have lunch on Sundays and morning prayer on Mondays and Wednesdays.
“Our core mission is to simply be church, to do spiritual care, to offer old-school Sunday school, to simply be church in all the ways that those of us who are housed get to be churched,” Jackson said. “We try to be like Jesus and wash people’s feet, and particularly the feet of our friends who have to live on the streets and have to spend a whole lot of time on their feet.”
Her parishioners have been particularly excited about her election, “because they get to be close to somebody who might be able to help them,” she said.
Prioritizing needs of neighbors
Jackson’s model for doing both ministry and public service was Clementa Pinckney, who served as senior pastor at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and was also a state senator. Pinckney was one of the nine churchgoers killed in the church during a mass shooting in 2015.
“All along I’ve kind of just assumed I would be a pastor, then I would retire and be a senator. I always had those really bifurcated,” Jackson said. “Learning about Clementa Pinckney … was really inspiring for me.”
She is, however, fully aware of the challenges that come with serving in both roles. While there must be some separation, Jackson said there are other parts of her jobs that align.
“I will go in as a senator and work my butt off to make sure that we allot more money for mental health care, and I am doing that for my congregants,” she said. “When I fight for expanded mental health care, yes that is an issue that impacts people who are experiencing homelessness, but that is also an issue that helps us out. It helps me out, it helps LGBT people, Black folks, it helps us all out.”
Jackson has placed health care expansion and increased financial resources for public schools as her top priorities in the state Senate. Alongside that, her Democratic caucus has committed to pursuing reforms to the criminal justice system.
“I will work with other legislators to introduce a whole slate of legislation around … police accountability,” she said. “I will work hard to try to end citizens' arrest laws and "stand your ground" laws, because those ultimately hurt people; they tend to hurt Black and brown people a whole lot more than anyone else.”
From pain to celebration
Jackson and her wife, Trina, live on five acres of land just outside of Atlanta. Their location provides them access to the countryside that reminds Jackson of her hometown. She and her wife raise two dogs, a cat, six goats, 30 chickens, and 30 ducks. The animals “demand” her attention, requiring her to spend time with God and creation, she said.
Ultimately, however, their home provides space to recharge and realign spiritually. During the campaign, Jackson took Sunday sabbaths and did not campaign, choosing quality time with her wife instead. The spiritual rest and realignment helps her to keep pressing toward the mission that she sees as God’s call in her life — liberation.
“If, when people write that final chapter about what my life has added up to, [they write] that I was someone who came to preach good news to the poor and liberation, then I think I’ve done my job,” she said.
Currently, the story being written about Kim Jackson’s life is a story of celebration. Jackson said she didn’t know there were queer Christians until well into college. As for many queer people of faith, it was painful to navigate the conflict that arose with her family.
“It was heartbreaking for [my family] to learn that I was lesbian. They tried to pray me straight so hard ... and to have come to this place where they’re posting articles about me making history as this out person, it’s really redeeming,” Jackson said. “If you had told me at 25 that anybody would be celebrating my sexual orientation, I would not have believed you.”
For Jackson, the evidence of what is possible still inspires her.
“I live in a Black city, and that matters to me. I grew up and there was one Black doctor and one Black dentist that you could find in all of the upstate area,” Jackson said. “I can have a Black gynecologist, a Black dentist, there are choices. As somebody who really thrives on seeing people who look like me doing things, to know what is possible, that’s meant the world to me.”
Now, however, Jackson is the embodiment of possibility for others. After her high school posted about her election, a queer student at school reached out to Jackson. The student commented on experiencing homophobia and isolation, thanking Jackson for her example of how LGBTQIA folks can succeed.
For Jackson, who had been so encouraged by role models in her own life, it was powerful to know she’d helped someone else see what they could become. “That’s why I ran, right there,” Jackson said.