The Reverend Jakob Hero-Shaw (he/him/his) has served as Senior Pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa (MCC Tampa) since September 2015. The road that led him there was ever-winding, even as it allowed him to find community and love, nourishing both others and himself.
Rev. Hero-Shaw (born in 1979) didn’t attend church much, as the youngest child of college professors, until the youth program at his local Unitarian Universalist congregation caught his attention as an adolescent. Finding it to be a great place to connect to his peers over conversation, the UU of Tampa was a stopover for Jakob's burgeoning spiritual awareness. At this time, his values of community wholeness and wellness began to emerge. He was a founding member of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at his high school, in the late 1990s. This was the first GSA in his school district, the fight to establish the GSA sparked his enthusiasm for activism. He was motivated to take on this work after feeling isolated and seeing how his LGBTQ+ peers struggled socially at his school and other schools in his area.
Jakob struggled with his gender identity throughout his youth and adolescence. While people made comments to him about identifying as a lesbian from a very young age, he felt the label didn't quite fit. He imagined that finding a community to reflect with and learn from would help him parse through his identity. After a difficult period in high school, where he dated girls, but kept falling in love with the other boys, he came to some realizations about his gender identity and sexual orientation. He was a transgender man, not a lesbian. In his coming out process, Jakob found his family members were more perplexed by the teen’s interest in religion and spirituality than by his sexuality or gender identity. He continued to long for an LGBTQ+ family to be part of, imagining a space that would allow him to be all parts of himself.
The young Jakob had a good friend who was an Evangelical Christian that witnessed to him. “She embodied Christ’s spirit with a lot of love and compassion, and that really helped me to realize that I was feeling pulled toward Christianity.” To the adolescent Jakob, it was apparent that his dear friend possessed a calling to the ministry.
However, after his friend came out as a lesbian, his friend was shamed by the conservative megachurch she attended. His friend was publicly humiliated during a praise service. This rejection was the beginning of a downward spiral, and Jakob's companion entered a deep depression from which she never recovered. After graduating from high school, his friend died by suicide.
It was after her death that Jakob found a calling to ministry – to having community and making community for others. Much like his struggles with gender and sexual identity, Jakob struggled to find his place academically, he spent a year at Florida State University, followed by a year at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington. Eventually he could no longer ignore what he felt compelled from within: to live into what his dear friend did not get to do. He moved back to his hometown and enrolled in the Religious Studies department at the University of South Florida.
During his undergraduate career, Jakob sought out a church home. One Sunday morning, he found himself sitting in the parking lot of Tampa’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) after using Mapquest directions he’d printed “just in case" he could muster up the courage to get there. He waited until service started before entering the building. The undergraduate had found something priceless. “[This was] where the holy spirit [was] calling me to be.”
Beginning his medical transition soon after, and attending the MCC at the same time, was full of a spectrum of emotions. While the congregation accepted the young man, they also seemed not to know what to make of him, causing Jakob to explain himself over and over again. Eventually, he found a group of people willing to be partners on the journey with him.
Jakob met the Rev. Elder Dr. Jim Mitulski and discussed how he didn’t feel quite ready to begin seminary, though it was definitely something he wanted to pursue. Mitulski urged Jakob, “Go and become more of yourself.” This would lead the undergraduate, who completed his BA in 2003, to find avenues for human rights activism overseas.
After completing an English language teaching certificate, Jakob found out about an organization in Croatia called Ženska Soba, which most closely translates to “Women’s Room,” and worked in the area of women’s and LGBTQ rights. Ženska Soba was excited to work with Jakob, a native English speaker, as he could provide indispensable aid with grant writing and copyediting.
During his time in Croatia, Jakob put together the first-ever conference for Central and Eastern Europe in Zagreb about trans identity. It provided a space for most of the conference’s participants to be around other trans people for the first time.
While he didn’t attend church during this period of his life, Jakob would study the bible on his own, visiting cathedrals and other houses of worship. He began a distance learning program at St. Michael’s Theological College of Cardiff University in Wales, where he studied Christian Theology and Spiritual Direction. Wanting to stay in an academic mindset, Jakob was able to test-run seminary life by maintaining a routine of papers and research.
“I did some growing up and figured out who I was,” Jakob said, remarking on these years following his undergraduate studies. Finding himself at ‘survival level’ competency with the Croatian language, he could not communicate easily. He looked forward to week-long visits to Wales, breaking up his remote coursework.
Committed to following the path of academia after leaving seminary, Jakob entered his first year of concurrent studies at Pacific School of Religion (PSR) and the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California in 2006. He was confident, as a Master of Divinity Student, that he would never 1) get married, 2) move back to Tampa, or 3) pastor a church. However, the Divine had other things in store for him.
After completing seminary and internships at New Spirit Community Church and MCC San Francisco, Jakob planned to begin doctoral work. He received his Masters Degree and Certificate of Sexuality and Religion from PSR in 2011 and a Master of Arts in Ethics and Social Theory through the GTU the following year.
He once again returned to his hometown of Tampa, Florida. He was hired in a year-long position at MCC Tampa and concurrently completed his first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education as a chaplain intern at Tampa General Hospital. Hero-Shaw found chaplaincy to be life changing and also arduous. He found it difficult to not get to be his whole self in chaplaincy and felt like he “had to be very, very closeted.” After his chaplaincy internship, Jakob worked full time as a chaplain for 3 years, first in a chaplain residency, and then in a chaplain fellowship.
Jakob was facing the whole gamut of human emotion at this time as he would provide care for his grandfather, who, at this time, was at the end of his life. He found the experience of tending to his Alabaman grandfather to be “beautiful, painful, awful, as deaths often are.”
Searching for some distraction from his sadness, Jakob began looking for companionship online. He didn’t meet up with most of the people he spoke with. Still, after his first date with Allan (lunch between a church service and his chaplaincy shift), he found himself smitten with his very shy, very nervous date. “He was just the cutest thing.” Jakob beamed, glowing anew when talking about the man he would marry as if they’d just exchanged numbers for the first time in 2012.
Allan, a single father to then-eleven-year-old fraternal twins, came out later in life, serving as a contrast to Jakob, who had been “out in all the ways” since age 14. Hailing from a small town in Scotland, Allan had moved to Florida when the children were almost 2 years old. From the beginning of knowing each other, Allan and Jakob would constantly text. Over time, they found out they practically lived together, after spending the night with each other more often than not. “We are good for each other,” said Jakob.
These factors converged, persuading the Rev. Hero-Shaw to stay in Tampa when a pulpit opened at the MCC congregation, in 2015. After five years of being together, the couple married in 2017, they hyphenated their last names. Allan Shaw and Jakob Hero became Allan and Jakob Hero-Shaw. Jakob found himself ecstatic at his new roles of husband and father as his ministry continued to develop. "[The kids] became the center of my life… [I have] this incredible honor of raising two kids, something I had always wanted but never knew how I could get there.”
Jakob began providing tools for discernment to seminarians in 2012 with the Trans Roundtable and the Transgender Seminarian Leadership Cohort, a program launched by the Center for LGBTQ+ and Gender Studies at PSR.
Content with how life has unfolded, Jakob can’t help but grin when discussing his husband and their family. “We text ‘I love you’ to each other like 47 times a day,” he remarks. Living less than a mile from his parents, he still wants those around him to experience affirmation and wholeness. “I want my children to find someone who makes their house feel like a home.”
(This biographical statement written by Zebulon Hurst from an interview with Jakob Hero-Shaw and edited by Jakob.)
Biography Date: June, 2020