Princeton Seminary | Living Out the Gospel

Living Out the Gospel

Eli Henry paying it forward through compassionate, inclusive ministry
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Growing up in a conservative area of western New York, Eli Henry didn’t always feel welcome or even interested in his local church community. It wasn’t until he was 16 years old that his parents first started bringing him to worship each week, at a small United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church USA joint congregation. “At first I went begrudgingly,” Henry admits. “I was just this angsty, queer teen who happened to end up at this little, tiny church that ultimately changed it all for me.”

This was the first time Henry had ever seen a church where the LGBTQ+ community was boldly and explicitly welcome. It was the first time he met a female pastor. And it was the first time he could see himself becoming a part of the church. As it turns out, this small congregation was Henry’s starting point for a lifetime of faith and outreach.

The College Years

When Henry arrived at the University of Rochester, he sought out the campus ministry and was delighted to find a progressive, Protestant community led by an openly gay female pastor (who also happened to be a Princeton Theological Seminary alumna). “All of my passion and energy was poured into my religious and interfaith communities at the U of R,” he recalls. “Even so, I thought I could never make a career out of it, and didn’t even entertain the idea of becoming a pastor.”

It wasn’t until his senior year, when he attended a large interfaith conference, that he realized it was, in fact, possible to make his passion his career—in front of him was a large cohort of individuals doing just that. “I later realized that experience was my call to ministry,” he says. “I asked my mentors how they became pastors, and they both told me they went to Princeton Theological Seminary.” He checked out the Princeton Seminary website and discovered that the next session for interested students fell within his spring break. He took it as a sign. “The minute I got here, I realized what a fantastic community it was,” he says. “PTS has great academics, a strong alumni network, and significant resources. But when faith is your area of study, it can be incredibly vulnerable. You need that community where you feel safe, and PTS was that for me.”

Diving Into Life at Princeton Seminary

To say that Henry is involved on campus would be an understatement. He served for two years as the co-moderator of the Gender and Sexuality Association for Seminarians (GSAS, which provides support, advocacy, education, and fellowship to members of the seminary community, especially those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, or intersex), and is currently the organization’s chaplain. He’s a deacon for Student Life, which he describes as being a “jack of all trades” when it comes to community care. Deacons stock the food pantry, run the Thanksgiving event, check in on students’ mental health and well-being, and help connect students with resources across the campus and beyond.

Since Henry’s main interest is in campus and community-engaged ministry, it’s no surprise he also found himself working in admissions, both as a campus host and as an online peer counselor. “It’s a gift to sometimes be the first person someone sees when they walk on the PTS campus,” he says. “This is especially fulfilling when working with LGBTQ+ people, because there’s always the question of whether they’d be safe and belong wherever they choose to attend seminary. I make it clear that not only are we safe here, but we have a vibrant community here.”

In fact, Henry began receiving gender-affirming healthcare while in Seminary and has taken this journey alongside his Princeton Seminary community. “When I tell people I came out and started transitioning in Seminary, sometimes their eyes get kind of wide—they think it’s the worst place to do it,” he says. “But I can’t think of a better community to be in than PTS.” Henry was supported with meals from his colleagues and congratulations from professors upon hitting landmarks in his journey. “At PTS, I can be unapologetically who I am,” he says.

On the academic side, Henry is a research assistant in the Center for Contemplative Leadership. “The center’s mission is to train and provide resources to Christian leaders inside and outside the church, with a focus on justice and community work,” Henry explains. “My passion in that area is spirituality in the LGBTQ+ community, so I’m really interested in helping not only queer and trans folks in general, but also those going into ministry who are doing community building and leadership work.”

Looking Ahead

Henry is currently in the ordination process with the Presbyterian Church USA, and plans to focus on social justice and outreach to young adults and the LGBTQ+ community. “I’m really excited to end up at a church where we can expand our outreach to people who feel like they can’t be in the church anymore, or with young adults who maybe never saw themselves in the church in the first place,” he says. “That could take the shape of congregational ministry or campus ministry, especially because college students are open to engaging in new things and are looking for community. I feel the church has that to offer them.”

As it turns out, that reluctant first trip to church with his parents at age 16 set the tone for the rest of Henry’s life. “My compassionate little church in Warsaw, New York catapulted me into knowing I could have a church like this,” he says. “When I think of a church I may want to end up at, it’s a church that is active in making it clear that God’s love and God’s doors are open to everyone. I pray I can end up at a church where they’re clearly, enthusiastically, and explicitly living out the Gospel.”

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Associate Rector at Trinity Church, Princeton, New Jersey

Nancy Hagner, Class of 2013

“Preaching is one of the most important things we do as pastors. You get to challenge people’s minds and hearts, as the gospel challenges all of us.”