Rev. Karen Hutt, MDiv '03, is a Unitarian Universalist minister, board-certified chaplain, and Clinical Pastoral Educator. We asked how her ministerial career path unfolded, her hopes for the future of Unitarian Universalism, and Meadville Lombard's role in it. [Photo: Angela Jimenez Photography]
Right now, I am in Minneapolis and I am a clinical pastoral educator. Most recently, I was a VP at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul, and I'm no longer there. Now I’m back to doing something I love, which is helping people learn to become chaplains and ministers in their congregations through teaching them the skills and the theoretical constructs that are needed to become a good spiritual care provider over the long haul.
I had come to Unitarian Universalism off and on throughout my college time in Boston, and then again in Chicago. Then I was serving as a RE director literally right across the street from Meadville Lombard in Hyde Park in the 90s, and there I started to demonstrate at that particular congregation certain kinds of skills and proclivities that led people to encourage me to go across the street to consider full-time ministry.
What got me into ministry, though, was an event in Chicago. It wasn't so much the encouragement of others. I thought that might be a path for me someday. In 1995, I organized the first group of openly Black queer folks to march in the Bud Billiken Parade, which is the largest Black parade in Chicago. It was a big political fight and a big to-do and there were lots of funny twists and turns in how it happened, including involvements with the mayor. It was just a big news story. My goal was to say that Black people aren't any more homophobic than white people. I wanted to prove we could march safely in this street and no one's going to do anything when everyone thought something was going to happen to us. And nothing did. If you just look up Proud Black Lesbians and Gays, Bud Billiken Parade, Chicago in the '90s, you'll find the stories. There's television footage of us. I'm in the Black Gay Hall of Fame with that story in Chicago.
It was at the end of that when I knew that I had to continue marching and leading and being a force for my people's freedom. One way of doing that is being able to have a certain kind of freedom of vocation, which ministry provides you with, to be able to engage either in a congregational level or prophetic level or at an organizational level to mobilize people to fight for justice. It was the justice-seeking, inclusive message of “Black people aren't any more homophobic than white people,” because that was a myth that white gays had propelled for years.
We, the Black gay community at that time, needed a place where we could ask the question, "Am I going to hell?" That's what people wanted to know. So, I started a church and a nonprofit while I was at Meadville Lombard: Church of the Open Door and the Open Door Center for Community Change. Most students don't start a church, negotiate getting property and all that kind of stuff while they're in seminary — running back between classes and checking the roof and the sewer of a new property that you're inheriting from another church, fundraising money. I did things that were just not really normal for students, but it turned out to guide my path in some important ways because I understand ministry to be completely entrepreneurial and improvisational.
If you don't have that spark, I don't think you're going to really be successful, particularly in today's time when there are certain difficulties in congregational ministry for a lot of the people. More people are interested in chaplaincy and organizational ministry than they are in congregations, of those amongst seminarians. Given that, I think that the education I had in the real world, along with the great cocktail conversation I could have with anyone about theology as a result of the in-class work, is the right balance.
I worked for about 10 years in Illinois in prisons and jails. I was part of a really interesting project started by a group of Catholic women called Aunt Mary's Story Book Project. We took brand new children's books into the prison and women read them on cassette tapes. We'd send the tape and the book to the children so they could hear their mother read them a bedtime story. I was part of the founding and creation of that program. Then we expanded it to fathers and did all kinds of projects.
I worked at Stateville Men's Prison and I worked at Dwight Women's Prison. One of the things I learned is that you work on the inside or the outside. When you work on the outside, you can march and argue and scream and holler all you want about injustice and incarceration. When you're on the inside, you've got to work with the people that are there and the system that is there. You cannot scream and holler about the injustice of the incarceration system when you're in the prison itself, because they'll put your ass out. You’ve got to go along to get along in the prison with the officers and the guards, and the notoriously difficult life that that means. I watched horrible things happen to people in prison, but I really couldn't say anything. What I could do is smuggle in condoms in a bra and flirt with the person patting me down enough so that they wouldn't touch me there and I could get the condoms in and help save lives. You're not supposed to have sex in prison, it's against the law, but they do and they were dying. I did the right thing.
That's what you do when you work inside. You work inside with everybody. You work inside with rapists and murderers and all kinds of people who have done horrible things. I'm not fully an abolitionist. I believe we do need prisons because some people can't be on the outside because they're too hurt and they'll kill and rape again. So that puts me in the middle of some arguments, sometimes, having worked on the inside with people who've done these things and would do them again if they were not in prison. Unfortunately, there's no process by which to heal some of them.
I worked on death row when it ended in Illinois. I rode the bus with the guys who were leaving death row one day, across all the cornfields in Southern Illinois to their new location in the general population. I learned something very important. What we think about what people want and need in prison is very different from what they do need and want in prison. They were the angriest people I'd ever met. I thought they'd be jumping up and down for joy because they were going to live and not going to die. They were angry. You know why? Because you could have more books on death row. You could take a shower every day on death row. You could shower only once a week where they're going. On death row, you could see your lawyer. You could talk to people about your law cases. You had more access to materials and mail. And the food was better too on death row.
There are these bizarre incongruent juxtapositions of the inside and the outside world that I learned working in prison. It was my favorite job of all time being a chaplain in prison. To go from cell to cell, not as a chaplain, but as a person who said, "Is there anything on your heart, brother or sister, that you'd like to talk about today?" I learned not to stand on the yellow line in prison, which is the arm's length it takes for somebody to snatch you up to their cell, to the bars. I learned if I stood on the yellow line, no one would respect me or trust me. So, I went right to the bars and shook hands with people despite my fear.
The reason I became a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) educator is because I wanted to do CPE in prison with lifers. I wanted to do clinical pastoral care because so many of the lifers were already serving as chaplains to the younger guys that were coming in, helping them figure out how to live and do 25 or 30 years of time. When you're 18 and you get 25 years, you've got to have a guide to help you figure out how to do it. I wanted to help train those men to be the best chaplains they could be. They were already great chaplains.
Well, we're moving towards fascism, basically. Or theocracy of some kind. I think that is clear. I think we're going to be kind of at a sort of low-grade civil war for a while on many fronts. The first front we'll see it on is with the dissolution of Roe v. Wade. I had an abortion, just as a side note. It was three months after Roe passed. The machine that they used for it was brand new. It was coming out of the box the day I got there. I mean, this is how far backward we're going.
With our retreat on civil rights and human rights in general, I think Unitarian Universalist seminarians and ministers, and churches need to really step up their commitments in real time. I think we need to stop arguing about things amongst ourselves that are ridiculous and frivolous. We need to spend more of our time focusing on training people to lead in coalition with people of other faiths and backgrounds and get out of the 250,000-people bubble that we've been in. It's pretty stagnant, with limited growth. I think we've got to rebrand, basically, for the future. We need a new brand.
I've watched other denominations rebrand like the Swedish Covenant. I watched them rebrand into the Covenant Church and I watched them go out and look for great Black and Latino pastors and give them buildings and give them money and give them support to build a ministry right there in a place. We don't do that. We invest in a few big churches in university towns, but we don't invest real effort in branding ourselves to be appealing to the wide swath of people that believe exactly what we believe. Most people, if given just our principles and some of the basics, would be Unitarian Universalists if they weren't Unitarian Universalists already. The old brand doesn't work and it's going to die on the run and the newer ministers have got to lead the way for that to happen.
Newer ministers have got to have better skills in terms of how to organize and how to build institutions. I really love the idea that I started a church when I was in seminary. It might be crazy, but it was really the type of thing you should do. Frankly, I think seminary should have only half the time being in classes learning stuff. The other half of the time should be inventing ministries, doing stuff, being out in the community. Not just in a little internship opportunity, but given a project every semester.
This is my dream. Every year, the incoming class gets a pot of money and an idea, and then their job is to create a new ministry. Something that's never been done before that's going to be relevant when they graduate so that they work on it every year. The whole group, people are working on different things. They actually build something. That's seminary to me in the future.
I'm working on building new models for public chaplaincy. I've got some hot projects coming up that I can't talk about right now, but they're coming. And I'm going to need those Meadville Lombard graduates to work on these projects in the future. So, get it together, Meadville Lombard! Keep on keeping on.
Rev. Karen Hutt has been a UU minister for 25 years. She has served UU congregations as a minister, as well as in several large hospital systems as a chaplain and Clinical Pastoral Educator, in both Chicago and Minneapolis. She is widely regarded as one of the most innovative educators in the Clinical Pastoral Education field, and her work has been published in the Journal for Reflective Practice and Supervision. From 2005 to 2014, she also served as the part-time Executive Director of Companions Journeying Together, Inc., an interfaith prison ministry that worked with clients in prisons and jails around the state of Illinois.