Cable television sports its share of peculiar religious programming. But few of those ministries can match the first impression made by Denver's own TV evangelist, Sister Who.
For ten years, viewers of Denver's DCTV/ Channel 58 have watched Who, the alter ego of Mr. Denver NeVaar, a book-inventory specialist for Denver Public Schools. Who's television track record is impressive: She lays claim to one of the longest runs on Channel 58. Her show, which airs Sundays at noon and twice during the week, features music, sermons of acceptance, and guests from society's fringes, particularly members of the local gay, lesbian and transgender communities.
This week, Who will host a special event marking her first decade of divine ministrations. Dubbed "Ten Years in Gold Hiking Boots," it will celebrate the good sister's efforts, which she carries out in a hybrid habit that's equal parts KISS Army, gay pride and the Flying Nun. Who dons the habit at public appearances and while carrying out an on-foot ministry to the peaks of the state's fourteeners.
While ascending, "I transcend gender," Who says. "It's not so much female impersonation as it is a deeper level of personhood."
Who's evolution dates back to NeVaar's discovery, at age 26, that he is gay. "My life had been one long identity crisis up to that point," he recalls. After telling his tale to one Sister X, of the San Francisco-based gay-rights group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, NeVaar was handed another identity crisis of sorts when X dubbed him "Sister Who."
Who developed her habit and fine-tuned her calling, which she equates with the role of the "sacred clown" of ancient tribal cultures. "The sacred clown was a teacher who tried to understand and be responsible for each person in the tribe," she explains. "They would look for those stagnating and try and provoke them to new thought. They made people think, even if they didn't know what to think."
Who has certainly done that when appearing at events around the state, most recently Telluride's Steps to Awareness Festival. "I simply put on the costume and make myself available to do whatever work needs to be done," Who says. Some are intrigued by her appearance and ask questions, she notes, while others are turned off by her sense of style. "But that's exactly the sort of thing a sacred clown should be doing -- encouraging people to think outside the traditional categories."
Who's tenth-anniversary concert will continue that campaign. She will perform a few of her own compositions, including a personal anthem, "I Am Who I Am." Anita Cocktail, a local drag queen, will also perform, along with other musicians and a special transgender guest, Markie Woods. For the occasion, Who will be donning a new pair of her trademark, gold-painted Wal-Mart hiking boots. (She recently retired her first pair, which she wore out scaling Longs Peak, Mt. Bierstadt and other Colorado fourteeners.)
Out on the trail, Who notes, she's seen proof of the reach of her ministry. "I've been a hundred miles out in the wilderness," she recalls, "and had someone come up and say, 'I saw you on TV.' It's made me think, 'Gee, there are more people watching than I thought.'" Then again, she's also encountered hikers who spied her outfit and gave her a wider berth on the trail. "Everybody's entitled to their own reaction to me," Who says, "and it says more about them than it does me."
Besides, such moments are an encouragement to Sister Who as she enters her second decade of television ministering and hoofing the high country in her habit. The world, she says, needs its buttons pushed now and then. "Not in an irresponsible way, not in a malicious way. But we need something to keep us growing, to keep things fresh and new in life." No argument here.