An Open Letter to my Unitarian Universalist Siblings:
I hope this letter finds you all thriving and happy.
I write in the hope that you may assist me in resolving a professional question that arises out of the present crisis in our denomination.
As a shared frame of reference, I offer the following excerpts, the first from the UUA Website and the second from Wikipedia. Together, I believe they provide a summary of what any interested member of the public would understand to be the essence of Unitarian-Universalism and UU ministry.
What the public understands is important, for between my published writing and my work as a law enforcement chaplain, my UU ministry mostly operates outside the church and our institutional assumptions. Whether at a book reading or at the scenes of the various wild-land calamities to which I am summoned, I am very likely to be the only representative of our faith. Recently I have begun to doubt that I am representing it honestly.
Ministers are spiritual leaders of our faith communities, the UUA website says. They help us to explore life’s questions, encourage us to live out our values and comfort us in times of suffering. Ministers teach, preach, listen and learn by serving congregations, serving as chaplains and working for justice in the community.
…UU ministers are a diverse group…their personal beliefs are as diverse as Unitarian Universalism and all are committed to UU values. Rather than telling others what to do or believe, ministers encourage people to make sense of the world in their own way, supporting them on their life’s journey.
So far, so good.
I have been a UU minister since 2004. As a chaplain, my ministry is by definition ecumenical and all-inclusive, but when asked, I readily identify myself as a UU. Since many people don’t know what a Unitarian-Universalist is, I explain it pretty much the way Wikipedia does:
Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a liberal religion characterized by a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Unitarian Universalists assert no creed but instead are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth….Unitarian Universalists state that from [their twin traditions] comes a deep regard for intellectual freedom and inclusive love.
I never doubted that this tradition was where I belonged, nor did my fellow UUs ever suggest that I was in any way failing to live up to the standards of the faith.
Quite the opposite, in fact. When my memoir, Here If You Need Me, became a New York Times bestseller, I was positively profiled in, among other publications, UU World. Among the various prizes and honors I received, I was most pleased to join such luminaries as Taylor Branch, Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien as a recipient of the UUA’s Frederic G. Melchor Award, bestowed yearly for that book “judged to be the most significant contribution to religious liberalism.”
I was glad to learn from correspondence with readers that many were introduced to Unitarian Universalism through my books, or through my interviews with, for example, Krista Tippet in NPR’s On Being. When a story I told on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour went viral, it meant ten million people had listened to the voice of a UU minister.
As an author and also as someone with expertise in sudden death and grief and/or law enforcement, I teach, preach, listen and learn around the country and, indeed, around the world. I’ve preached sermons in UU but also Congregational, UCC, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian and Lutheran churches and in synagogues.
I’ve trained American law enforcement officers and other first responders in the theory and practice of compassionate on-scene bereavement support and death notification, and offered lessons learned working with game wardens in the Maine woods to wildly diverse audiences including physicians and surgeons, the FBI National Academy, the POMC (Parents Of Murdered Children); to hospital and prison chaplains, the incarcerated and high school, college, graduate school, medical school, law school and yes! even divinity-school students. As a UU minister I’ve blessed new babies, new marriages (including same-sex ones, of course) new cops, new chaplains and new lawyers.
It was as a UU minister that I offered the opening prayer to thirty-thousand people at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial service in Washington, DC, as well as at the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Law Enforcement Museum. In 2010, I gave the opening prayer for the United States House of Representatives.
For my work, I’ve been honored with various state and national awards including, in just the past year, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Lifetime Achievement Award, the University of Maine’s MaryAnn Hartman Award and, in 2019, I was named by Maine Magazine as one of its “50 Influential Mainers.”
I could go on, but the point is not to boast of my accomplishments. Rather, it is to underline what I would hope would be obvious: When I am recognized by a group or, for that matter, by a stranger who happens to bump into me at the airport, I am explicitly and implicitly representing Unitarian Universalism. And herein lies the rub.
The events of the past few years—- especially the ructions attendant upon the publication of Rev. Todd Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers—-now impel me to ask a simple and serious question.
I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am a minister…but am I still a Unitarian Universalist minister?
For it seems to me that, though the descriptions offered on the UUA Website and on Wikipedia haven’t changed, Unitarian-Universalism has changed. There is a new, de facto if not quite yet de jure definition coming from the top down, of what it means to be a UU Minister. I am not sure I can still be located within it.
I believe in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I have a deep, downright passionate regard for intellectual freedom and inclusive love and, indeed, believe that one is not possible without the other.
But if Reverend Todd Eklof is an apostate, so am I. If Reverend Richard Trudeau is worthy of censure by the board of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, so am I—-indeed, I am more worthy of such censure than either of these men.
After all, their free and responsible search for truth and meaning led neither of them to be Republican-tolerant, Trump-voter-sympathizing, uniform-wearing, androphilic, pro-life-adjacent, reason-loving, dialectic-enjoying, America-approving, pro-capitalist and pro-free speech cop-lovers.
During the two decades in which I’ve been hanging out with mostly-male police officers and comforting the suddenly and violently grief-stricken, or writing books that have nothing whatever to do with systems of oppression, the Revs. Eklof and Trudeau have been doing all the right things, in UU-approved ways.
If, after all his years of good-faith UU service, Reverend Eklof can nonetheless be instantly and mercilessly condemned by nearly two hundred of his colleagues within hours of distributing a thoughtful, well-intentioned book; if Reverend Trudeau pour encourager les autres can be censured by the UUMA for causing unenumerated harms to unnamed “colleagues of color;” if, for that matter, an ordinary congregant, Mel Pine, can be subjected to a twenty-minute obscenity-laced online diatribe and then have his work removed from the Worship Web merely for questioning the behavior of those who are, quite clearly, now in control of our denomination… what on earth should happen to me?
I never got around to being “fellowshipped” so I suppose I can’t be “un-fellowshipped.” I don’t belong to the UUMA, so I don’t know whether its board has standing to censure me.
Still it seems quite obvious that I ought to be censured, and someone needs to post a video condemning me, too. The briefest Google search would surely be sufficient to turn up all sorts of transgressions against the new orthodoxy. At the very least, my picture and story should be removed from the UUA website, on the grounds that I have been misrepresenting our faith or, to put it another way, I’ve been telling lies. In my defense, mine are the same lies still extant and uncorrected on that same website but I’m sure the webmasters will get around to adjusting that soon enough.
In the meantime, at the very least, the UUA, UUMA, BLUU, DRUUM etc. should surely abjure me, and instruct me to cease and desist describing myself as a UU minister in any and all interviews, awards ceremonies, speeches, sermons, public prayers, radio and television appearances and on the jackets of all future editions of my books.
Of course, I could be wrong. As I say, I don’t really “do” systems, just people, and grieving ones at that. So perhaps I have misinterpreted recent events?
If so—that is, if the UUA and all its acronymic subgroups would just as soon have me continue to self-identify as a UU minister— perhaps you would be kind enough to let me know why? And, for that matter, how?
Ideally, such a reassuring explanation would take the form of one of those “Open Letters” co-signed by dozens of my colleagues, though if it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to have signatories of all colors, not just white ones.
If I don’t hear anything from you, please know that I shall respectfully interpret this to mean that you all do indeed prefer that I no longer publicly associate myself with Unitarian-Universalism. Of course I shall respect your wishes. If it would be helpful, I can notify the New York Times, the Washington Post, Krista Tippet et al, that nothing I have done, am doing, or will do in future should be presumed to represent the principles and values of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
With thanks in advance, I remain, pro tem, your colleague,
Reverend Kate Braestrup