A ‘Marvelous Message’

Above: The Rev. Amy Petrie Shaw is also a talented artist. Her painting “Unto These Hills,” an acrylic on canvas, explores the components comprising the living world. Shaw has had gallery shows in Chicago and Cincinnati. She also writes about science and a humor series devoted to her cat Dippy.

Writer: Kelly Roberson
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Amy Petrie Shaw at the First Unitarian Church, 1800 Bell Ave.

Amy Petrie Shaw has always been a seeker, having sought to refine her faith and her identity, her profession and her creative streak. That lifelong pursuit has led her to a position as minister for Des Moines’ First Unitarian Church, where Shaw, 51, is the first known nonbinary gender-neutral person to lead a church in Iowa.

In the small Kentucky town where she was raised, coming out as a lesbian in high school went as well as one might expect—not well at all, in other words. Born in northern Kentucky, Shaw was adopted and grew up in a rural area with a younger sister, also adopted. She left for college wanting to be a writer and English teacher. Side shifts as a nurse’s aide made her realize there was more money in nursing than in teaching, and she entered nursing school and pursued a career in nursing-home management.

Even so, she continued to think about and question her identity. “As I got older and as gender studies continued to evolve, I realized that ‘lesbian’ was probably not accurate,” Shaw says. “I identify somewhere in between male and female—gender queer or nonbinary. That’s kind of where I’ve ended up—I’m never on one side or the other, but comfortable being somewhere in between.”

A Good Fit

By its definition, the Unitarian church felt like a good fit for Shaw as it embraces a broad sweep of believers: Buddhists and atheists, Christians and Jews. The quest to find her place in religion began early: Raised high-church Anglican, Shaw turned to Judaism as a teen, but after 20 years swung to Unitarian Universalism. “Through the years, I kept arguing with God that ‘you had messed me up enough,’ but God never shut up,” she says.

She was pushed to resolve that argument in response to two heartbreaking events. When she was 33, her sister died. That “put the brakes on my whole life,” Shaw says.

“I got up in my nice apartment and looked at my nice car and nice business suits and realized … that not one dollar of what I had in my wallet would bring back this wonderful life.”

The day after the funeral, Shaw, who was then living in Mason, Ohio, left her job in nursing home management to become a floor nurse at an inner-city nursing care center; she stayed seven years. “I was trying to learn something about what white oppression and the lack of privilege looked like, what it looked like to shut up and not be the boss,” she says.

During this time she also returned to painting and writing, creative pursuits from her youth. But then one evening at work, she experienced another sorrowful incident: She watched a young man die from a gunshot wound for lack of a timely ambulance response. She remembers saying to herself, “I’ve got to do something to make this a better world.”

That decision led her in 2010 to enroll at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. After completing the three-year program, she served at a church in Cincinnati, then at Lake Country Unitarian Universalist Church in Hartland, Wisconsin.

Draw of Des Moines

Shaw’s acrylic painting “Nor the Moon By Night” explores the inclusiveness of the body of Christ.

When Shaw decided it was time for a change, the uniqueness of the Des Moines congregation was a particular attraction. “I loved the fact that this congregation approaches things from all different viewpoints and is willing to refuse to accept the world as it is when it’s not good,” she says. “They need someone who can hear all their disparate viewpoints and find commonality. It always has to be someone outside the system to see the system.”

Shaw is a nonbinary person in a world that’s set up to exclude her, and if she feels someone’s unease, she pushes back—hard. “The more non-accepting an environment is, the more I will not ease up,” Shaw says. “I’m much more militant when I feel like people won’t be OK with it. Even if I’m comfortable, the person coming behind me—someone who is black and nonbinary, for example—isn’t. They have it 10,000 times worse.”

Shaw’s seeking hasn’t stopped, and neither has her belief in hope. “As long as you are breathing, there is hope being breathed into this world—I rely on that over and over again,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter what your faith is, what your background is,” she adds. “If you live your beliefs so strongly that I can infer the holy book or the ethical system that you rely on by simply looking at your life, then your entire life is your proselytizing. It’s [you] going into the world and spreading the gospel. That’s the most marvelous message of all.”

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