Rev. Connie Simon graduated from MLTS in May 2018. She serves as the Alum Association President and the Alum Representative to the Board. We asked her about her experience at Meadville Lombard, her ministry, her hope for the future of UU faith, and why she thinks it's important to support the school.
I had no idea at an early age that I was going to be a minister. None at all. I thought I was going to have a career writing movie scores, and that didn't happen. After several years as an attorney, some of which were spent working in the telecommunications industry, I realized that I wanted to serve people more directly. I did some work with a nonprofit and started attending a UU church, where the minister and everybody there kept saying, "When are you going to go to seminary?" And I was thinking, "I'm not." At that point in my life, I'd already been through multiple graduate programs and I wasn't going back to school. Then the minister said to me, "Well, you're already a minister. You just don't have the degree." That’s when I knew that there was a different way to serve people.
I decided to go to seminary. I was really intentional about my search and where I wanted to go. I was very clear that I wanted to go to a UU-identity school. And having read Mark Morrison-Reed's books and knowing that I would have the opportunity to take his classes, I thought, "Hmm, this Meadville Lombard is pretty cool." And the low-residency program was equally appealing to me. I met Mark and Nicole Kirk at General Assembly and knew right then that that was where I wanted to apply, and where I was going to go to school. As I was formulating what my ministry would look like, I realized that it is helping people heal from the inside out, so that they can do the outside-in work that the world needs.
That’s how I view my role. I'm not the one who's probably going to be out there leading the protest and getting myself arrested because that's not always safe for Black and Brown bodies in this world, but there are ways that I can serve. It’s important to me that I do those things. That's how I came to this.
One of the things that attracted me to Meadville Lombard is the way the low-residency program is established. I know that it's changed since I was there. I completed law school at an institution that did co-ops. So, having that experiential learning and being on site was really important to me. When I saw that I would have the opportunity to do community studies and be immersed in an organization for a full year, that my internship would be part of my educational experience and not something that's just tacked on after I graduate, that was huge for me.
It gave me the opportunity to build those skills, use them in real time, come back and ask questions and figure out like, what don't I know? If I'd been in the opposite situation and done my internship afterward, I wouldn't have had the chance to come back to my class and say, "Hey, this is what's happening in my internship. What's anybody else feeling? How is this working? How do we process this? I haven't learned this thing, and I think I need to learn this before I graduate Meadville Lombard. Give me the tools." Whereas when you do it after the fact, you don't get that. So, I think giving me the chance to practice and to learn up close and in person was totally invaluable.
The days of sitting in a dusty library, learning Latin and Greek for your seminary education, it doesn’t work anymore. We need to be in place. Not everybody wants to become a professor or a parish minister. There are so many more opportunities for us to serve now, ways that we can create our own ministries. Experiential learning is key to that. You need it. Actually, I think it should be required, but that's just me.
At the core of who we are, for all of us, we each have our own personal theology. Whether we want to call it that or not, there is some set of values and sense of vision and mission and purpose that guides each of us through what we do. There is some sense of what the larger thing is, whether it's God or spirit or humankind or whatever it is. It's wonderful to be focused just on current justice movements, but I think you have to know the past to really understand how we got here — to understand who you are and how you fit in Unitarian Universalism and what we need to do to go forward.
I had two reasons for becoming involved with the UUSN. One is that I love learning about our history. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I'm not one to just focus on old white guys from the 18th or 19th century. There has to be, and there is, so much more to Unitarianism, Unitarian Universalism, and Universalism than Emerson, Parker, Channing, and Thoreau. There just is.
Those stories are not being told. That's why I wanted to get involved with the UUSN. To move the organization as a whole into the realization, we need to tell all the stories. By editing the DUUB to start telling more stories, to be more friendly, it will be less centered and rooted in white supremacy culture, which is right now where it is. That needs to happen. It's really got to happen.
I was in my last year at Meadville Lombard when we had what I call the Summer of Our Discontent. I was sitting in the room at the Finding Our Way Home retreat (for BIPOC+ UU religious professionals) when the stuff kicked off. And I remember thinking, what is happening here? Is this my faith? What is going on? Have we not learned? All of the things that I saw between 2017, 2018, 2019 felt like a replay of where we were 50 years ago. The similarities were just striking. I remember saying to someone, "Don't you know the history of this faith? Don't you know that we've been here before and it didn't go well? What are we going to do differently this time?"
It broke my heart that there were a lot of people who were new to Unitarian Universalism that didn't know about the things that happened between 1968 and 1970. You have to know that. You have to know that to really understand why there's so much resistance now to what we're trying to do. We have got to talk about this history. And 1968 to 1971 wasn't the first time we'd done it either. We get excited about racial justice and then we lose interest. We go up and down. If you look at the history of our faith, we've been really ready to jump into anti-racism work and anti-oppression work. And then, "Oh, no, we got to talk about women getting the vote. Okay. Now, we'll talk about race again. Oh, nope. We got a war going on, World War II. Okay, fine. We got to do this again. No, I don't think so. Let's talk about gay rights. Okay. We're here again." It's like we've just done this over and over and over again.
Now all of us who have been marginalized in the faith, we're coming in and we’ve got to deal with us, because if the Unitarian Universalist world as a whole doesn't, we won't stay. It's scary for the future of Unitarian Universalism. It's sad. Scary is not the right word. It's sad for the future of Unitarian Universalism.
I feel like this is our last best chance to get it right. I preached a sermon on the promise of Unitarian Universalism. I was quoting something from Reverend Bill Sinkford about how we've gone around and around with this and not gotten it right. And I said, "This is it. We've got to get it right this time, or at least make forward steps, because we're running out of chances."
The work we're doing is great. Implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Institutional Change. Bringing in more voices. We're looking at our governance in ways that we never have. The Article II Study Commission. All of these things are positive steps. There's a long way to go, but we're doing it. My hope for us is that we truly embrace collective liberation and know that really none of us is free until all of us are free. That’s my vision for this faith, that we really see that and understand it and live it. I'm not one of those folks that's tied to the Principles, but the one that strikes me the most is the 4th Principle; the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
I have this vision of us really doing that, allowing people to explore and learn and express and decide for themselves what their sense of the divine is, but in a way that's responsible and recognizes the covenantal relationships between and among us. That would be absolutely beautiful to me. When I accepted the call at First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, I said to them, "I want to be part of a faith that can sing, ‘Come, Come, Whoever You Are’ and mean it.”
All of these things that we use to divide ourselves — our physical and neural abilities, class, race and ethnicity, age, what we believe in terms of a God — I don’t want them to disappear. My hope is that we would be able to see them in one another, recognize that they are there, and truly accept and love one another. Each one of us carries the spark of the divine, however you define it. My vision and my prayer for Unitarian Universalism is that we start living that way, seeing that spark in every single being on this planet.
If you see that spark, there's no way that you can oppress. You can't be racist. You can't do it. Even to somebody as troubled as Donald Trump, you can't do it, because it's about behavior, not their being. My prayer and my vision for this faith is that we really start living it and embodying it in all that we do. In the ways that we gather, in the ways that we treat one another in our organizations. I think we can do it. I believe that we can do it. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing this stuff.
There’s something freeing about knowing that you are not bound to this, that we choose this faith. That’s the covenantal basis of it. We choose this and I know that I have the power to un-choose. But I'm just going to keep working. I'm going to keep working every day for this faith. And I don't want to say, “for its institutions,” because sometimes that has a bad connotation for folks, but it is important to me that the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is healthy. That's important to me.
It is important to me that we are providing the best possible preparation and education for our leaders. That's important. So, what's going on at Meadville Lombard? Yeah, that's a big deal to me. That's why I serve on the Alum Association team. That's why I say yes when I'm asked to do things for the school. It's important. It's important that we as religious professionals pursue continuing education and that we keep working to better ourselves. That's why I serve the UU Ministers Association as well, doing mentoring for candidates and aspirants, because there have been people who came before me who have gone through all this stuff, the good and the bad, who have been there to support me through to where I am. My soul tells me that I have to do that to those who are coming behind me.
Rev. Connie Simon, MDiv ’18, is the President of the Meadville Lombard Alum Association and the Alum Representative to the Board. She serves as minister of the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati. She is the first woman of color to be called to the position in the congregation’s 200-year history.Read More