Award-winning singer/songwriter Reverend Yolanda offers a course in miracles, teaching about trans and HIV activism, self-empowerment & self-growth
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
I met Reverend Yolanda this past October, at Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), on the set of celebrity host Ron B [A&U, June 2018] show, No Boundaries–Up Close and Personal. Reverend Yolanda arrived accompanied by her husband, Reverend Glen Ganaway, and surrounded by an aura of openness and love that she generously shared as she greeted everybody on the set. Then she took the stage and performed one of her own songs, “We Are Angels”: “We are angels struggling to be human.”
It was Rev. Yolanda’s voice, as well as the song itself—music and lyrics—that made me think of humans struggling to survive, for some reason, and I knew then and there that I had to find out more about those angels and about Rev. Yolanda, herself. And so, a couple of months later, on winter solstice of all days, I caught up with her by phone.
Yolanda is the name she took on, for several reasons. In Alabama, where she grew up, she came to know a couple of beautiful, strong women by the name of Yolanda. Then, when she moved to New York City in 1984, she discovered Yolanda Vega, “the Lottery Queen,” designated the New York lottery personality in 1990. A few years later, Rev. Yolanda adopted the name. “Yolanda Vega!” she says, in character, accentuating the V in Vega. “Everybody loved Yolanda Vega, and I just kind of took the name,” she reiterates, laughing.
While reading about her amazing work, I noticed the mention of “radical faeries,” and I remembered trans activist Lady Clover Honey telling me about her own experience joining the Radical Faeries community. And, as it turns out, Rev. Yolanda, who knows Lady Clover Honey, is also a trans activist and she also spent time with the Radical Faeries—a group of LGBTQ people who celebrate the divine feminism connected to god and spirituality.
“I found out about them in 1989 by seeing a documentary on MNN,” Rev. Yolanda comments about the Radical Faeries. “I was fascinated. I began calling all over the country, because I had no idea where to find them.” She reminds, “This is before the Internet.” She ended up finding a New York chapter of the Radical Faeries and, from there, learning about a Radical Faeries commune in Vermont. “I went up there to visit and knew that that was where I wanted to be.” And so she moved to Vermont.
Rev. Yolanda refers to the years she spent in Vermont as “a transformational part of [her] life,” a time when several things happened, including her coming to understand her own transgender identity and beginning to open up the whole world of gender studies and gender variants, and also her HIV-positive diagnosis in 1997.
“At the time [I was diagnosed] I was not well,” she comments. “I did not know how long I was going to be on the planet, and so I decided that I was going to do whatever the hell I wanted,” she says with a big laugh.
She moved back to New York City right before the 9/11 attacks, and started performing, yet again. And although she had always been a singer and songwriter, as she resumed her performances, they took a whole new life. Her voice started to change, to become the powerful, angelic voice that defines Rev. Yolanda, now an award-winning singer and songwriter.
Rev. Yolanda also considers herself “a sacred activist,” not only a political activist. “I try to find the best ways of connecting with people, to help develop bridges and conversations,” she explains.
Nowadays, though, in many aspects of our lives, building bridges seems nearly impossible, especially when it comes to bridges to fight stigma against those who’re considered “different”—individuals identifying as LGBTQ and in particular trans individuals come to mind, as well as those living with HIV.
Rev. Yolanda, who considers herself a trans-femme genderqueer person, is no stranger to stigma and harassment, sometimes finding herself at the receiving end of this kind of behavior. “If the person doesn’t really want to have a conversation, is just trying to be accusatory or hateful then I usually walk away, I don’t engage,” she offers, “because there is no sense in trying to address that kind of ridiculousness.” Sometimes she (still) gets harassed on the street and sometimes it’s not life-threatening, and she responds (or not) depending on each situation. “The latest situation was a group of teenage boys who were trying to call me names. And I just turned around and said ‘yes I am,’ and then I started chasing them down the street, with my purse…and they started running.”
Rev. Yolanda is also very much aware of HIV-related stigma that’s still around, as well as of some young individuals becoming complacent when it comes to HIV—the virus and its stigma. Rev. Yolanda has worked with young people throughout her life. “I do think that, in terms of HIV, young people are a lot of times complacent,” she reiterates. “They don’t understand the complications, but, to me, that comes with being young. That’s why education is still very important, it’s always been important.” Although she shares her hope in the young generation and in the progress that we’ve made to fight the epidemic, she reminds that there’s still so much more work to be done, and points out that that’s only going to happen when individuals feel empowered. “So, I feel that my mission right now is helping people understand their own personal power. That’s why I call myself a sacred activist, because I get involved in activism, but coming from a powerful place, not from a victim place, and, luckily, I’ve met a lot of wonderful trans activists, like Ron B., who do the same thing.”
She helps people understand their own power and reminds them that they’re “shamans and healers,” while giving speeches across the country, and also through events co-organized with her husband, right here, in New York City. And through these events, both reverends help empower individuals to navigate through whatever kind of unpleasant situations life throws at them.
“Church with a 2 Drink Minimum” is a celebration of self-empowerment and self-growth, a monthly event that’s been bringing together individuals from different walks of life for four years and counting.
Fellowship of Awakening takes place every Wednesday night. “We study a book called A Course in Miracles, by Dr. Helen Schucman,” Rev. Yolanda explains. Published in the seventies, the book offers “a spiritual thought system that teaches forgiveness as the road to inner peace and the remembrance of God.” Comments Rev. Yolanda, “We find this book very exciting, useful, and practical. We have weekly classes that start at the beginning of [the year] and go through the entire book every year. We’ve been doing this for nine years, helping people retrain their mind and creating tools to carry with themselves throughout their life.”
These events help in particular those living with HIV and/or HIV activists, helping them learn how to take care of themselves and what tools to use to create an atmosphere of empowerment and authenticity, and thus to navigate any kind of situation that they might find themselves in.
Learning to do that is quite personal to Rev. Yolanda. “I’ve been involved in activism for a long time,” she reminds. “I moved to New York City when the AIDS crisis was at its peak. I’m sure that’s when I contracted [the virus].” She reminds that when she was diagnosed, HAART medications were available. And yet, too many of her friends did not survive to experience the Lazarus effect of those lifesaving medications. “In the early days [of the epidemic] I saw friends die of AIDS,” she recalls. “And I was very angry about that.”
Today, although HIV doesn’t always kill like it used to, it still affects people’s lives, directly or indirectly. Fellowship of Awakening empowers the young generation with the right tools to deal with many situations related (or not) to HIV today. Rev. Yolanda reminds that there are different ways to handle each situation—“maybe it’s your duty to report to the police, maybe it’s your duty to chase those young people down the street with your handbag. We learn how to be authentic in each situation, not to hit the panic button immediately, but assess what the situation is and how to best be of service in that particular situation.”
The book the group studies every Wednesday is called A Course in Miracles, and yet, today, “we have a misconception about what miracles are,” Rev. Yolanda comments. “In modern times, people often think [of miracles as] creating something out of nothing. I love using this word [miracles] to help connect people to a spirituality that’s more based in a reality that we can understand. I mean the miracle of life, the miracle of waking up every day and breathing…we forget about that. Love is a miracle, finding your life partner or actually connecting with people and understanding that we are one with each other.” Rev. Yolanda encourages people not to miss the small miracles that happen every single day, because by cultivating a “miracle mindedness” they can see how much a miracle life really is. “It’s an attitude shift,” she adds.
Discussing miracles makes me think of angels and Rev. Yolanda’s song. And I find myself wanting to learn more about the story of those Angels “struggling to be human.”
“That’s a favorite song of mine,” she says. “I wrote it many years ago, when I was living in Vermont. [There] was a social worker in charge of the welfare of a group of young people, and he used to call them angels struggling to be human. I thought that that was such a beautiful analogy. And I sat down one day in my room in the commune, and these words just flowed to me in one sitting. It was like a miracle.” She adds, “there might be angels in each one of us, but [some of us] have difficulty getting past our own egos. [Humans are made of darkness (ego) and light (love).] Therefore, it’s a struggle to be human. That’s why I worded it that way. Because we have to deal with our egos…unless we find a way to come into a life of love.”
Rev. Yolanda has always been a spiritually minded person, and had the understanding that she was one with God. In 2011 she, and her husband, graduated from One Spirit Interfaith seminary, and then started their official ministry. “We are called to the ministry,” Rev. Yolanda says. “When one takes the mantle of ministry, one takes on a lot of responsibility. For us, that is to practice what we preach. It is our mission statement to be honest, authentic, and to share as truly and authentically as we can, from our own level of understanding, and to be an example that you can be miracle-minded in the world, even when there’re horrible things going on.” She then adds, “Our ministry is slowly growing, it’s not a flashy ministry, even though I’m a big flashy personality,” and I can hear the smile in her voice.
“Another piece of what we’re trying to do with our ministry is to help people understand their own personal connection with the spirit, because [we] are divine creatures in a human form. I think there’re many things that we can do, that’s why there are so many of us on this planet, because we all have so many different parts to play.”
Connect with Rev. Yolanda and find out more about her work and upcoming autobiographical musical by visiting online at www.yolanda.net.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.