Rev. Dr. Qiyamah Rahman, MDiv '08, is the editor of the new anthology, The Rough Side of the Mountain: Black Women’s Ministries in Unitarian Universalism (Skinner House 2023). We asked about her ministerial journey, her new book, and her hopes for Unitarian Universalism and Meadville Lombard's role in it.
I’m going to start with when I declared the call. It was the morning of the day after 9/11. I had the thought, “if I had been one of the individuals that lost their life, what would I have most regretted not having done?” The answer that came was going into ministry. That’s what started me on the journey. Now, it obviously had already been there, and I had been thinking about it. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister out in Hawkinsville, Georgia. I grew up in a very devout family. Organized religion was very much a part of my life. I did go through a period of time where I sort of put it on the shelf, but what I didn't realize at the time is I didn't know how to distinguish between organized religion and spirituality. What I had put on the shelf was organized religion, not my spirituality. At the point when I made the declaration, I applied to Meadville Lombard Theological School.
In January 2007, I had already been in the Modified Residency Program for several years. I was around 58 or 59 years old at that point, and I started thinking that this has taken a long time. I made the decision to begin full-time. That's how that call happened. I sold my house, packed up my car with some clothes, some books, my cat (I had to sedate her!), and drove from Charlotte, North Carolina to Chicago, Illinois, literally nonstop. Then I began my full-time residency as a student.
I had an amazing experience as a Modified Residency student. However, my status as a residential student allowed me to take classes at the University of Chicago. There were three or four other seminaries in the vicinity, and I took classes at all of them, amazing classes. That was the richness of being a residential student. My ministry actually began at Meadville. I was invited as a consultant to put together a program for teaching pastors and interns. We needed the structure and how to pull it all together. After I did that, I thought, “Shoot, I want to apply for this position!” I applied for the position and wound up being there until 2012.
After I did the program at Meadville Lombard, I applied for and was accepted as the Director of Contextual Ministry. Later on, we added the title of “Senior Lecturer” because I was also teaching. In the role of Director of Contextual Ministry, not only was I engaging with the students and the teaching pastors, but I also was working with residential students, helping them identify teaching internship sites. The students who lived outside of Chicago would identify for me their sites. However, in Chicago, I had the luxury of going out and identifying different sites. That was an amazing experience because what was happening is that I was engaging with some of the most progressive and innovative programs, wanting the students to have that experience.
I was looking for programs that were cutting-edge and that were doing things that others weren't doing. I remember this one program that was amazing. On their site, they had computer labs for community people to come in. They had job training, they had all of the usual skills development. They also were doing things like going out in the community and being a presence among the drug-infested communities. Their presence was discouraging pushers because being there and observing a transaction is not what the pushers wanted. It could be dangerous and yet they were doing it. I was just so amazed and so impressed with some of what these organizations were doing and their commitment to being in the community. The director of this program moved his entire family into the community so that they could be embedded in the community and have their finger on the pulse of the community. They wanted to be viewed as the community and not outsiders. So you can imagine how exciting this was.
Once MLTS discontinued the residential component of the program, that's when I began to rethink. At that point, I was involved in community ministry as far as the Ministerial Fellowship Committee was concerned. Once we discontinued the residential component, then I was spending all my time in the office in front of the computer and on the phone. After having had such exciting opportunities, working with students when they would come to campus, and being able to speak with them about how to be present in ways that were empowering and how to pay attention to the culture of communities and organizations, it was a big change. Where I'm going with this is that I got bored sitting in the office, and that's when I began to think about a change.
I applied at that time for a visiting minister’s position with the Unitarian Universal Scholarship of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands for a month. The second week that I was here, I knew that I was supposed to live here and work here. I never had such a strong sense of call. I tell this story about me and former President Lee Barker. When I came back, I informed him that I would be relocating to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. He said, "What's your plan B?" I looked at him and I said, "I don't need a plan B." That's how strong the call was. I never had a doubt for one minute. And that was my rather dramatic transition to parish ministry!
Technically the Virgin Islands is a territory of the United States. Our status is the same as Puerto Rico or Guam. We have a delegate to Congress that represents us. We cannot vote in the presidential elections. It does resemble a colonial status. There are some services that are not available to us. What greatly impacts us, I feel, are the health services. Healthcare in the Virgin Islands leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not so much that we don't have good healthcare professionals, but a lot of the services that are available in the states are not available to “citizens” here. That’s citizens in quotes because we are not full citizens. It’s a very interesting status.
With the UU Fellowship of St. Croix, there were many snowbirds or individuals that during the cold climate stateside live in the Virgin Islands in St. Croix and St. Thomas. We had more stateside members than we had actual locals. In terms of ethnicity and race, the population is predominantly Black in the Virgin Islands. However, the congregation’s racial makeup was 99% white. They were not all snowbirds, but almost all of them were white. The reason I bring this up is because it brings a different flavor in terms of the culture. That’s not to say that snowbirds aren’t part of the culture, but it's like dual citizenship for them. They have the congregation that they are a member of when they are stateside, and then they have the time when they're here and they're involved with us. So the fellowship did not look like the typical UU congregation stateside. It only met twice a month. They did not convene until October. As you know, most congregations convene in September. I finally got to the bottom of that. It turns out that the leadership did not return to the island until October.
They were small enough that they could create policies and procedures and a culture that reflected their needs and their convenience. They were almost 30 years in existence when I came. Thirty years may not sound like a lot for a congregation that's been in existence for 100 years, but keep in mind that they were the first and only UU congregation on St. Croix. On a good Sunday, we might have 20 people in attendance.
In 2018 I decided that I probably had one more good ministry in me, and I wanted to be in a place that has a robust UU community. So, I moved to Atlanta knowing that there are half a dozen UU communities in the metro Atlanta area. As it turned out, that was not where I was supposed to be. I was there for a year. Not only could I not find a social work position, but I also couldn't find a ministry position. So, I came back to the Virgin Islands, but by the time I came back, we were moving into the pandemic. The membership of the fellowship had begun to decline because they did not have a minister.
They had been somewhat spoiled during the six years that I was there. There was a certain flow to worship and congregational life. They could not sustain that after I left. Then during the pandemic, they stopped meeting and eventually they folded. Of course, it was a disappointment. It’s one of the realities of small congregations that only have a handful of individuals who are providing the leadership. Once something impacts that small group of leaders, it can be devastating. That’s what happened here. Unfortunately, at this point, we don't have a UU congregation.
When I came back, I did some community ministry with the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council. I worked as a disaster case manager. So I was still in the community, still working with individuals. I currently am a chaplain with the Continuum Care Hospice. It's working out for the hospice and it's working out for me because I'm working part-time. I will turn 75 next year and my children can't understand. They ask me, “Mom, when are you going to stop working?” I think maybe next year I will stop working for pay, but I’ll never stop working. It will give me more time to do the work that is dear to me in terms of Unitarian Universalism.
When I came into Unitarian Universalism around 1991, of course, I read Mark Morrison-Reed’s Black Pioneers in a White Denomination. I loved it. As a Black woman now in UU, I also wondered who the Black Unitarian Universalist clergywomen are. I figured, “Oh, somebody's going to write that book and I'll be able to read it.” That was in 1991.
In 2007 or 2008, I looked it up and thought, “How can this be that it still has not been addressed?” It occurred to me that maybe I'm supposed to write it. I've been waiting and it hasn't happened. I never intended to write this book. The book I was going to write was on Black Unitarian Universalist women in general. That’s what I'd been researching and I'd done countless presentations on the topic. However, as I was doing research on Black UU women, I couldn't find anything that was dedicated to Black UU clergywomen. I thought, “Somebody's got to do this.”
By then I was a minister and I was thinking, “Who's going to tell our story? Who will know that we were here? Who will know about the Reverend Doctor Yvonne Seon and all of those early women that came?” I thought I have to put this other research on hold and do this because I don't think it's going to get done if I don't do it. Evidently, it was intended for me to do. I put my other research on hold and began this exploration. It's been a journey. It took over four years for this anthology to be published.
I cannot take full credit for it because it's an anthology. Everyone that submitted added a voice, added a narrative, added a perspective that in its totality makes this a rich read. What I did do was to show the link between ancient Africa and the women in Africa, the shamans and the mediums and the spiritual warriors, and Black UU clergywomen. The first wave of Black female preachers, who we Black UU clergywomen are linked to, are linked to ancient African women. That's my unique contribution to the anthology. It is the introduction, and it makes that link with names, not just theorizing that this is possibly what happened. I was able to find dates and names. I just felt so grateful. It took a lot of research. It took a lot of talking with people and it took a lot of vision, because in my ministry I know that I am linked to those women. That first wave of preaching women really caught hell because nobody, including women, wanted to see women preaching. They used the Bible, they used so many different elements to not only discourage them but to try to justify the rationale and the position of why women should not be preachers.
As recently as 10 years ago, maybe not even that long ago, I was talking with a woman who told me she went to a church as a guest preacher. She was not allowed to step into the chancel. She had to preach from the floor rather than the pulpit because she was a female. That was just less than 10 years ago. There are obviously still faith communities who feel that women should not bring the word, that they cannot be vessels of the divine and the sacred. This was an important contribution and it's one of the gifts that Unitarian Universalism has, because we were among the first to ordain females in ministry. We weren't the first but we were one of the first.
That’s the backstory to the anthology. I sent out the word and lots of people were busy and not able to contribute. However, those who could contributed great things and I think people will be impressed and grateful that this will become a part of the archives and our history. It will not be the last, I hope, but it is the first. We have nothing like it up to this point. I honor all the folks that submitted essays and poetry and sermons. I'm looking forward to whatever my next endeavor might be.
Exactly. We use the phrase “standing on the shoulders” a lot, but if we don't know whose shoulders we're standing on, that's a meaningless phrase. That was another exciting aspect of the anthology. Now we know whose shoulders we're standing on, because I have a chronology of the black women that were ordained in fellowship. I have a chronology of BIPOC women ordained in fellowship. Reverend Dr. Yvonne Seon, while she was the first Black woman ordained in fellowship, she was not the first BIPOC woman. In my next book, I’m toying with the idea of being more international this time. It is not going to solely focus on clergy but will also include laity and seminarians. I'm already looking at Canada, the Philippines, India, and maybe Kenya since they have a large Unitarian population. That book has yet to be written. I think that those communities will be excited to tell their story and to share their history with the community of Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists. I’m feeling out what that next one might be. I want it to be cutting-edge and include stories that have not been told.
I still cannot believe that it's been almost five years since I started the anthology. I went the route of the anthology because I thought it would be simpler. I wouldn't have to write a book because all these other individuals would be contributing. All of the coordination of the different voices and stories, the coordination in terms of trying to find some balance with themes, is a lot of work. I need to do my next book while I still have the presence of my mind and most of my memory.
Speaking about memory, that's another area that we should be careful not to neglect. That’s the elders among us, whether they're clergy or laity. I've already lost some voices, some of which I was able to capture before they transitioned, but there are others that if we don't capture their stories, they're going to be lost. I really appreciate Dorothy May Emerson's Standing Before Us. She captured those voices of many Unitarian and Universalist and Unitarian Universalist women. She has made her transition, but she was dutiful in her vision and in her work to see that these stories were gathered and would be available to people. I credit Mark Morrison-Reed being the person who motivated me to put together the anthology, but Dorothy May Emerson gave me my first opportunity to have something published. I attended a workshop at a GA and afterwards we were talking and she was working on the anthology Standing Before Us at the time. She said, "I would like for you to submit an essay." I had been studying and really getting into the life of Frances Watkins Harper, so I wrote about that. My submission is the only submission by a BIPOC woman in that anthology. It boosted my confidence in terms of my writing ability and the belief that I could be a writer.
First and foremost, I want to see Unitarian Universalism continue to be at the forefront of social justice issues. When we go back into our past, that's evident and we’ve been consistent. There are times that we waxed and waned, but there's been consistency in terms of being at the forefront of justice movements. I want to continue to see that. Our vision for dismantling white supremacy, I want to see that vision fulfilled. I want to see us show up fully in modeling for faith communities all around the world that this is part of our journey to Beloved Community. We can't talk about Beloved Community if we are not talking about and acting on dismantling racism and white supremacy. That’s the Unitarian Universalism that I embraced in 1991 and that's the Unitarian Universalism I continue to embrace today.
I say that initially I was attracted because of its social justice orientation, and I've stayed because of the theological diversity. It’s allowed me the space to grow and develop. I started off sort of as an atheist, and I'm a mystical humanist today in 2022. Next year or five years from now, I may have a different identity. That is not possible in most faith communities. Unitarian Universalism provides that not only for ministers but for laity as well. I came into a faith tradition that said, “You have the opportunity to build your theology and to explore.” The minister is not the end-all and be-all. They're sort of the resident theologian, and they offer guidance and support, but they don't determine what your theology is. At first, that was a little off-putting only because I had gotten so comfortable with being handed a theology and handed a sacred book, so I didn't have to create any of this. All I had to do was just follow. To be told that you have support but the onus for your spiritual journey is on you is the Unitarian-Universalist difference.
I want us to deepen our theological grounding. For me, that's been an area that I struggle in. Seminary was great in helping me to really delve into that, but once I left seminary, it seemed like there wasn't enough time. I noticed in different regions they have ministers’ groups that are dedicated to doing research and they present papers to one another. This is only my opinion, but I think there's not enough of that. I would like to see Meadville Lombard teach a course on research because I don't think enough ministers view themselves as scholars. That’s a component of ministry. Not everyone wants to be a scholar or historian, but when you think about sermonizing and preaching there is an element of scholarship in that.
I think Meadville Lombard does an excellent job with that, but we need to take it to another level so that our ministers are always striving to be scholars and have the theological grounding that they need to support their members. We can be learning from one another. We have not generated as many theologians as some other faith traditions have, and I think it's because we don't get that grounding in seminary. We’re not encouraged to see the link between ministry and scholarship, and theological groundings and theology, which should be ever-growing and expanding. How can it do that if we ourselves aren't growing and expanding? I'd love to see more of that in seminary.
Having now been doing this research for so many years, I’m realizing that individuals like myself, Mark Morrison-Reed, and so many others who are historians and researchers, cannot do this alone. Our congregations need to have a better understanding of the importance and significance of research. I recently got a grant to teach basic research skills to lay persons and congregations. The reason I thought this was important is that if we're talking about de-centering whiteness and dismantling white supremacy, we have to go back into our archives. We have to look for the hidden presence of BIPOC people because we have not fully recognized and appreciated how the lens that many of our congregations have used in the past have overlooked BIPOC individuals, which is why we have so little history in terms of the congregations.
On a larger scale, a macro scale, Mark Morrison-Reed can lift up these historic personalities. I can lift up these historic personalities. However, it is time to talk about individual personalities — everyday ordinary individuals that were movers and shakers in these various congregations, and yet, we don't know their names. We are not familiar with their contributions. Why? Because our congregations don't appreciate and understand their role as historians. They don't necessarily understand that you need to have an anti-racist and anti-sexist lens so that you're uncovering those individuals that you've overlooked in the past. In most instances, they are there. When they are not, that's an opportunity for a congregation to raise the question of how we are serving the BIPOC community. How are we engaged with them? It means that they may need to go outside the four walls and look to see who is in the surrounding area, who constitutes the larger community. It’s a win-win situation. If you don't find BIPOC contributors in your history, you move outside of your four walls and look at the context you're operating in. You have to ask yourself some powerful questions, because you should at some point have had coalitions and partnerships with BIPOC individuals and organizations that are doing social justice work. If we profess to be at the forefront, how is it that we are not in relationship with others?
Rev. Dr. Qiyamah A. Rahman is a UU minister residing in St. Croix, VI where she served the UU Fellowship of St. Croix from 2012 to 2018. Inspired by the Interfaith and social justice witness of UUism, Rev. Rahman devotes her primary research to the richly diverse narratives of Black UU women and girls. She has conducted research on violence against women in Ghana, South Africa, and the United States. Rev. Rahman challenges us to expand our scholarship on the presence of UU Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOCs). Rev. Qiyamah was the Minn’s Lecturer for 2020 and presented three lectures on Black UU women and Black UU clergywomen. Her anthology, "The Rough Side of the Mountain: Black Women’s Ministries in Unitarian Universalism" was published in January 2023.