Angeline Jackson is a current student, aiming to graduate in May 2023. She is a prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist in Jamaica. We asked about her career as an activist, the connection between her activism and her call to ministry, and what she thinks the future of Unitarian Universalism can be.
Before seminary, I was an activist. I still am an activist! But before I came to Meadville Lombard, I was engaged in LGBTQ human rights activism, which also took in a few other areas. I didn't just focus on LGBTQ rights. I was an HIV educator and I worked broadly also in human rights in Jamaica, specifically targeting women's rights because I'm also a woman. What affects women in Jamaica still affects me, even though my experiences as a lesbian woman are also nuanced and require an additional type of focus in the work that I did.
I co-founded and was executive director of a nonprofit, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica, which at the time was the first registered organization for lesbian and bisexual women. We started in 2012. We're focused on three areas: education, research, and activism. One of the things that we learned early on was that we didn't know what was happening with lesbian and bisexual women in our community, there was no data. In my undergrad, I had done a little bit of research and I got super interested in it, so we just decided to do an online study. We didn't have the money or the connections to set up and do research, but we needed to know what was going on. We did an online survey, we got the information, and then we used that information to decide the programs that we were doing. The education component of the work was determined based on that research.
One of the first things we did was offer a workshop on self-defense, starting with physical self-defense, then expanding to self-defense online. We had people from a self-defense company do training on physical self-defense and a friend who was on a security team at an embassy do training on protecting yourself online. Then we said, “Okay, so we've done all of that, but what if you happen to engage the police?” So, we asked another activist to do a training on how you engage the police and what your rights are when you're dealing with the police.
That was one of our first workshops and it was really good. That’s kind of where we started building both a name for ourselves, what we were doing, but also building our volunteers out of that; the women who participated in those trainings always wanted to come back. They came back not just for training, but also wanting to see how they could participate in the organization. That was always good.
We did another workshop around empowering young women under 25. We trained them to then go back into their communities to talk about safe sex and the things that they learned in that prior workshop. In addition, my co-founder and I realized there was hardly any information or programming around HIV for lesbian and bisexual women. There was no deliberate focus on it in that community. Our research says that our community isn’t testing themselves for HIV. They don't believe they're at risk. We realized that we needed to start focusing on that as well. So that became one of the workshops we did.
We did a lot of presentations. One of our shining moments as an organization was in 2013 or 2014. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is a body within the Organization of American States, was doing a follow-up report on human rights issues within Jamaica. One of the things that came out of their initial report was the state of LGBTQ rights and LGBTQ people. We were one of the three civil society organizations that were invited to go to Washington DC and sit at that table and talk about what was happening in our community in Jamaica. That was because we had the data and we were doing the work to be able to say, "This is an issue that's affecting lesbian and bisexual women." We got a lot of attention from that. We did a lot of work both internationally and locally.
For our activism arm, we worked a lot with Maurice Tomlinson to help organize silent protests for LGBTQ rights. We did a number of those at different spots in Kingston. Safety was a big concern. We did a big protest in 2013 when a youth, Dwane Gully Queen Jones, was murdered by people in Montego Bay for showing up at a party dressed in women's clothes. Somebody from Dwayne's church noticed him and outed Dwayne, and Dwayne was murdered. No one has been charged with that horrible and gruesome murder, and afterward people just went back to partying and dancing. It was messy. It was terrible. So, we organized a protest in memory of Dwayne, for justice for Dwayne, for justice for the entire LGBTQ community. It was one of the largest protests for LGBTQ rights that has happened on the island. Local media didn't really pick it up because they don't care. Even with that, it’s definitely been something where people can say that these are things that have happened across Jamaican society for LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights.
In all of that, we never worked alone. We’re serious about two things. One was that we weren't working alone because we're not islands. I mean, we are on an island, but we don't operate in silos. We did a lot of work with other human rights organizations on the island and participated a lot in civil society work. The other thing we decided early on was that we were going to be out. That was different. We did not want to have another LGBTQ organization where nobody knew who was who, where people had to guess, “Is that person gay? I'm not sure.” We were just clearly saying, “I'm gay.” My co-founder, Jalna Broderick, is gay. We're both gay and this is work we're doing. That also made a difference.
That was where things started. Over time, this work gave me the opportunity to develop skills in public speaking, which then led to more public speaking engagements. I wouldn't bill myself as a public speaker professionally, but I was certainly heading in the direction of public speaking and it's still something that is of interest. Public speaking was always connected to LGBTQ activism.
Before seminary and as I continued through seminary, I also work as an expert witness on LGBTQ cases for Jamaicans who are asylum seekers, particularly lesbian and bisexual women going through the process. I've been contacted by various organizations to produce expert witness reports on the state of LGBTQ rights in Jamaica, including the specific issues of life and rights for lesbian and bisexual women here.
That’s my career before seminary!
I started the seminary journey looking at a bunch of schools. I did not know about Meadville Lombard at all. I looked at the Pacific School of Religion. I knew about Starr King and I reached out to them. After I realized that Starr King was located in Berkeley, CA, I figured out the cost of tuition, the fees, and then the cost of living, and I thought, “I'm an international student studying ministry. I don't have that money. That doesn't make any sense.” So, I kind of just pressed pause on that. It didn't go any further.
Then in 2014, I met Rev. Adam Dyer. He and I got on like a house on fire when we first met. We were like, “Where have you been all my life?” He and I spoke regularly about my interest in ministry and why I wanted to come into ministry. One day, while he was at GA for that year, Adam sent me a message saying "Hey, are you still interested in going to seminary?" I said, "Yeah, I am. Definitely." He said, "Here's this website, go look at it. Tell me what you think about it." That was it. I trust Adam. Almost with my life. So, when Adam said, "Go look at this website," I went and looked at the website.
It was the website for Meadville Lombard. I looked at it and I said, “Hmm, Unitarian Universalism. Oh, I met these guys in 2012,” when part of my activism had taken me to DC. My first introduction to Unitarian Universalism was at the UU church in Arlington, Virginia. I met Rev. Carlton Smith who was there at the time, and I remember when I walked in and thought, “Okay, this makes a lot of sense to me.” But this is 2012. I wasn't interested in doing church online because there was no UU in Jamaica. And so my best option was the Church of the Larger Fellowship. And I didn’t want to do that. So, I didn't really engage much with Unitarian Universalism between 2012 and when I made the decision to come to Meadville Lombard.
When I looked at the website, I liked the structure of the program. I said, "Okay, I can do this. I can afford this." This is not Berkeley living in Berkeley costs. The way the program was structured at MLTS was that you come in for the Intensives, you leave. And I figured that between Adam and myself, he would probably know people to reach out to and I could probably find accommodation. So that would cut down on the cost of housing, all the different things that I needed to start working through as an international student. And I looked at it and I said, "Yeah, yeah, this makes sense. I like it." And Adam encouraged me to send an email to the ML staff who was the point person for international students at the time, and we started communicating.
But what happened was that when I really made the decision to apply to ML, I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to reengage my interest in Unitarian Universalism. I was also interested in Metropolitan Community Churches as a denomination. But I realized, as I read more about Unitarian Universalism because I was applying to ML, that I had some theological rubs that didn't really sit well for me with MCC. I was doing deep dives. I was asking Adam, "Hey, tell me some books to read about Unitarian Universalism." He was connecting me with different folks like Rev. Alicia Forde, who is from Trinidad and Tobago, saying, “Here are the Caribbean people to connect to in Unitarian Universalism, develop that relationship, talk with them.” And so, I was able to start connecting with people even before starting at ML, and between the conversations with them and all the books that they told me to read, I was able to say, "Okay, yes, I can put all the other experiences of my life, my theological experiences, all the meanderings that have gotten me here, to the place of Unitarian Universalism." And because of that, I was able to say, "Yeah, this faith community looks like it will work." It also led me to decide to really be in this space of commitment of yes. It wasn't just, “I'm going to go to Meadville Lombard.” It was also, “I'm going to go to Meadville Lombard, and this identity as a Unitarian Universalist that is also shaping up right alongside this decision.”
And yeah, there was a scholarship that made it possible for me to come to ML. Because I realized again that there was no way I was going to be able to do seminary without a scholarship. When I got the scholarship, I said, "Okay, great. Now we got to figure out all the other costs of coming to seminary." But I miscalculated all of it in 2019. I should have started in the fall of 2019. I did not because I realized I did not figure out where I was going to stay during Intensives. I didn't yet have this money together. I didn't know how to apply for a student visa yet, just all the things that come with the additional load of being an international student. So, I deferred for the year so that I could get everything sorted out, figured out. I started in 2020.
Yeah. So, a big part of why I came to seminary was because in my activism I realized we're not talking about faith. When I started activism, I was never going to talk about faith. That was where I started my activism. I didn't want to engage in faith. I didn't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole. I was fine being very far away from it. But over the years I realized Jamaica is a very Christian country, for all the things we do that really don't fit in the category of Christian, we hold very strongly to this identity as a Christian nation. And I realized that LGBTQ activism needed to engage in a conversation about faith if we were going to really make the changes we needed. We need to make the legislative change; we still have anti-sodomy laws in our books. But you can't just change the legislation and say, "Hey great, we're free. Everything is great," if society's not changing with you. There's also the work of changing hearts and minds in society. How do you change hearts and minds when even the person who goes to church only for Easter or a funeral tells you that they're a Christian? They're still solidly in their Christian identity. I realized that we needed to engage in that aspect.
And I've had friends over the years who have made it possible for me to engage in those conversations. A very dear friend of mine, a brother friend, was invited to a church by a group of young people to talk about how the church can love homosexuals, and he invited me along. It was only the young people who were interested in the conversation, and when we were finished, the adults in the church were saying, “Y'all are the spawn of the devil” and other things. We have a lot of work to do.
Coming from that place and experience, I realized that there was no out LGBTQ person in the Jamaican public sphere who talked about faith, being able to engage in the conversation about faith in a constructive way. Not battling all the passages and all that, but engaging in a constructive way that could lead to some type of change. Don't have to be an agreement but changes somehow.
That’s how I realized I needed to engage with faith. That was a big problem. I'm an activist solidly in that space of secular humanism, I don't want to touch faith, but there is a need to do this and I know the language. And when I sat down and allowed myself to feel into it and think about it, it was where I'd always been called to ministry, I just did a really great job of running away from it. Now, even though I have studied Hebrew Bible, I still like to talk about Jonah and the fact that I oftentimes find myself kind of fitting that story of Jonah, how I can be being given this task and running away from it. I didn't end up metaphorically in the belly of a whale, but I totally ran away and that's a whole other thing. A lot of that I realized was a reaction to my parents and how for a long time my faith and my parents were conflated. And I did not realize how much the two were one, until seminary.
I realized that I had to come back to this space of tackling and looking into faith. And even though I had gone the meandering scenic journey of faith transitions from brethren to the science of mind, metaphysics, to agnostic atheists, to "I'm looking for some kind of faith" to MCC, to "Oh, here's Unitarian Universalism. I can put all of this here and not have to worry about it, great. It will sit right here." I was just realizing that. So, coming to seminary then became, "This work needs to be done. I am called to this work. I'm willing to accept that I'm called to this work and I'm now in a place of wanting to engage the work." My reason No. 1 of why I'm seeking ordained ministry is because it's for the purpose of my LGBTQ activism.
And I've always said that it's for the sake of my LGBTQ activism and being able to have that public witness and that public voice in Jamaica. My intention is to be able to do this and operate in Jamaican society as an out lesbian. Wearing a clerical collar, so that when people see me, they have to do a double take. They have to ask more questions. It can't just be this assumption of, "Well, no gay people are Christians." Okay, sure, I'm not Christian but we can have a conversation because I'm wearing this collar and you're going to want to find out more. And being able to be present in protests and marches and public witness events, that collar will make a big difference for our movement in my opinion.
So, I came to seminary saying I was an activist. And then through my first year, I realized, "Oh, it doesn't have to be, 'I was an activist.' I can combine my activism here because it doesn't have to be one or the other." And then in the second year, I had a great conversation with a chaplain. She said, "Well, you just need to bridge the distance between the two because they don't need to be separate. They're just one thing and how you go about being present in this one thing is what will make the difference."
And then there's my writing. And again, there's a lot that the education at ML has done for me in these two years. In my first semester at ML, I said, "You know, I don't think I remember how to do graduate school writing. This is seminary. I don't know how to write for seminary. Let me do this course of Academic Research and Public Theological Writing" with Rev. Michelle Walsh. I mentioned at the beginning of that course that Angeline is this person who has these really huge thoughts and then has to narrow them down, and at the end, we had this final assignment that did not need to be as difficult as I made it for myself, but I had this whole idea of, "Oh, my gosh! I want to do a book!"
The book that recently got published was not yet on the list of books to come out. During that final assignment, I was like, "This is a book I want to do. I want to talk about this experience for LGBTQ folks." This is where theology and activism came together and being accessible to the public. I don't necessarily like the range of academia and how materials can just circulate in academic spheres. It needs to be something that is accessible and available to other folks. So, I had this whole idea from that class and it got on the list of books that will eventually get done.
And then I was going to use parts of a book that I had started working on with Susan McClelland, and I reached out to Susan to ask if I could use some of the material from there. And she said, "Before you do that, let me reach out to my agent because I think your book might actually have a chance."
And so, in 2021, we finally get a publisher that says, "Yeah, we want this book." And I said yes without realizing how much work it takes to publish a book. And I did not think about that in relation to being in grad school. The two did not connect, but the experience of writing that book made me realize I was always a writer. I remember back in the day when I was involved more heavily in public activism and doing the protest, my friends said, "We don't want you on the front lines, Angeline. That's not where we need you, we need you to go write." And I kept thinking that's just boring. Who wants to write? That's not activism, I thought. But as we worked to publish this book, I realized that my ministry, my being a minister, my identity as Unitarian Universalist, and my being an out lesbian in Jamaica, all can come together in the multiple things that I find myself doing. And all of them are connected. [Click here to learn more about Angeline’s book, “Funny Gyal: My Fight Against Homophobia in Jamaica”]
Who I am as a minister is connected to the fact that I am an LGBTQ activist. Those two are connected to the space of being able to write and publish, and I remember whom I was saying it to. The back cover of the book says that I'm working towards ordained Unitarian Universalist ministry. That itself is ministry, like some queer youth is going to pick that book up, who is coming from spirituality and religion that says that they are sinful and all these other hurtful things, and see this about ministry and wonder, "Well, what the heck is Unitarian Universalism?" And young people these days, anybody these days, you Google something, you can find all the information you need to find. And just in that sentence, it’s a part of the ministry and realizing what that can look like.
So, all these different, similar, disjointed things come together into this. Just like all my theological journey comes together into this UU bowl. All of it gets into this form of, "What this ministry looks like?" And finally, in 2019, I started a ministry here in Jamaica for LGBTQ folks, grounded in Unitarian Universalist principles but not necessarily identifying as Unitarian Universalist. Because nobody in Jamaica knows what the heck Unitarian Universalism is.
That is a really big question! I would ground my entire answer in Rev. Mykal Slack’s Berry Street lecture. I think it was one of our courses with Rev. Tandi Rogers, and we were reading Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose and the book talks about an organization that just presses stop. They're like, "There are changes that need to happen. We need to stop and make some changes." And I remember asking my teaching pastor, my internship supervisor, "Could we just press stop on Unitarian Universalism and just say, 'This is a whole mess and we need to start over'?” It's not practical so what's the next option? In my seminary journey, I have been amazed at the people who are currently my colleagues and the people who will be my colleagues in ministry, the ways that we are dreaming and envisioning a new Unitarian Universalism, and the way we are able to hold onto that dream and not get bogged on in the “real life” work of ministry when we leave school.
I think that Unitarian Universalism is salvific. There are so many people that I know with whom I can see myself having conversations, with whom I've had conversations, who have said, "I wish I knew that there was a thing such as Unitarian Universalism." And dear Matthew P. Taylor used to talk about UU evangelism and I’m totally on that train of UU evangelism. I know some UUs don't like the term “evangelism,” but Unitarian universalism can have such a great reach, and can impact so many lives beyond—and I don't mean this as cynical as it's going to sound so I apologize—our yellow shirts at protests. How and what are the ways that we do not just show up in the world as Unitarian Universalists but say that we are Unitarian Universalists? I come from a brethren tradition, so this is still very present in my life. Coming from that, where people do want to hear something, something good, “good news,” and I think Unitarian Universalism is “good news.”
We got some work to do, and we've been working on it. The work that continues, that is going on, and will continue in our faith is also moving Unitarian Universalism into the future. My colleagues are aware that I have feelings about music in our churches and how we do worship. How do we change those? Not necessarily change it, not change like get rid of it, but how do we expand the ways that we do Sunday services? The ways that people feel welcome in our congregations and in our communities. We're still very much a predominantly white organization.
We go through those changes because there are people of color, there're Black folks who are in Unitarian Universalism, who talk about why we came to Unitarian universalism and the salvation, the salvific message that we have found here. And I think that if we build on that, that Unitarian Universalism can be that faith that not just moves into the future, but really continues the change that we need to see, can be something that people want to get engaged with.
And I will say, as an international person still in Jamaica, and I'm going to take the course, “UU History and Polity” this year, there's a lot that I don't know about history, but just what Unitarian Universalism looks like internationally and the need for support for people who do want to have that space. And I know there's a whole political dimension to it, and all the reasons why that kind of mission evangelistic international stuff is frowned upon. And at the same time, there are communities and people who want to see that work, want to hear that message, and want to have that connection. Church of the Largest Fellowship exists and there are so many international people who find community there. I don't think I fully answered the question, but it is definitely the tip of the iceberg of what that can look like.
Angeline is a prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist in Jamaica. In 2015, President Barack Obama recognized her as one of Jamaica’s remarkable young leaders at the Town Hall for Youth in Kingston. She was awarded the 2022 Advocate of the Year from J-FLAG in October 2022. She is finishing up her studies in our MDiv program to graduate in May 2023.