Salt Lake City’s minister to the political left retires after fighting many a good fight

An unabashed activist, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith battled for the climate, immigrants and LGBTQ individuals and against nukes and the LDS Church’s Main Street Plaza.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Tom Goldsmith talks to his staff Tuesday, May 11, 2021, during his final staff meeting at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years at the head of the congregation.

As a relatively young Unitarian preacher and Harvard Divinity School graduate, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith knew what to expect if he lived out his ministry in New England, headquarters of the church and bastion of liberalism: more of the same predictable sermons, surrounded by the same people with the same opinions.

Instead, the New York-born Goldsmith yearned for a new adventure, where he could harness his passion for social justice. So he jumped at the 1987 offer to pastor at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, a physical and religious landscape unimaginably different from those he had known.

The intrepid minister knew nothing about Utah or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has its headquarters here.

At the time, Goldsmith had only one Mormon friend in Boston, a professor of anthropology at Harvard, so the Unitarian relayed his excitement to him at the move.

“Guess what? I am going to Salt Lake City,” Goldsmith recalls saying to his friend, “one of the coolest people” he had ever met.

The scraggly bearded Latter-day Saint replied with concern, “Oh, buddy. Good luck.”

It wasn’t luck that propelled Goldsmith to settle into life as a liberal lightning rod in the conservative community but his strength of will, vision of social justice issues to be addressed, and clear-eyed determination.

Now the outspoken pastor is retiring after 34 years — giving his last sermon virtually on May 16 — having earned the reputation as “a pastor to his left-leaning flock.”

Goldsmith wears that title, he says, “as a badge of honor.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Tom Goldsmith and his staff have their final staff meeting Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years leading Salt Lake City's First Unitarian Church.

Though being left of center has influenced his preaching and practices, he would like to appeal to a wider spectrum.

The real work of ministry “is free of politics,” conducted “not in the public eye, but in the trenches,” he says. “It is being together with people during the hard times in their lives.”

There are, he says, “no politics in the intensive care unit or when receiving tough diagnoses or going through a divorce.”

Just listening, hand-holding and love.

Expanding the church

Unitarianism grew from the union of two long-standing radical Christian groups: the Universalists and the Unitarians, who joined together in 1961.

It does not require strict adherence to a set of beliefs about God or humanity. No dogma. No rituals. No food prohibitions. No intercessors with deity. For some, no deity, including Jesus, at all.

Everything is voluntary and individual. Do-it-yourself theology.

“We have always tried to teach that religion was not about memorizing creeds and doctrines, but about critical thought,” Goldsmith told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016, “so a child can make hard religious or spiritual decisions rather than just following along with the tribe.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Tom Goldsmith shares a laugh during his final staff meeting Tuesday, May 11, 2021, outside on the lawn at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years at the head of the congregation.

That openness attracted lots of folks leaving other, more rigid denominations.

Roughly 45% of the Salt Lake City congregants are “ex-Mormons in one way or another,” says Tim Chambless, who teaches political science at the University of Utah and has served on First Unitarian’s board three times.

That percentage includes Colleen Bliss, a retired educator and technology specialist. She and her husband, Rick, have been members for 15 years.

Bliss left the LDS Church in 1985, she writes in a tribute to Goldsmith, but “it wasn’t until 2005 that I finally found First Church.”

She’d been looking for a community “that was committed to social justice, environmental stewardship, the interconnected web of life, the worth and dignity of all and respect for everyone’s spiritual path,” she writes to the longtime minister, “and you had molded that together.”

Goldsmith made her “think and ask questions,” Bliss writes. “I could feel the entire congregation growing together. We didn’t always agree on everything, and that was OK, too. That’s the thing about [Unitarians] — we often don’t agree. You taught us so much, every week.”

Chambless was reared as an evangelical Christian, and his wife was Catholic. Both became Unitarians in 1980, before Goldsmith took over.

From the start, Goldsmith brought “an eclectic view of religion,” the professor says, “definitely more interested in Christian ethics than in Christian dogma.”

The minister introduced numerous traditions — picnics after church softball games, comedy skits for fundraising, a summer lecture series instead of sermons, sun masks and doggerel poetry for the winter solstice, and so on.

“He was always looking for more outreach to the community and to make the church more welcoming,” Chambless says, “and diverse.”

He launched classes in Buddhist mindfulness and sexuality and added Jazz Vespers to the Sunday evening lineup (though this ended in 2018 after 30 seasons). He pushed to enlist his flock — which swelled from about 200 families when he arrived to approximately 400 now — in the cause of civil rights and civil liberties.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Jazz Vespers Quartet plays Christmas songs during the Jazz Vespers service at the First Unitarian Church in December 2013.

“Tom is a real activist,” the professor says, “but not in a flamethrower way.”

Goldsmith is “the Platonic ideal [of a ] Unitarian minister,” Pat Shea, a Catholic politician, writes in his tribute. “Who else could in a compassionate and intelligent way manage the diversity of the Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City?”

Man of many causes

The first year Goldsmith was in Utah, he found himself in a van filled with his congregants, heading to the Nevada Test Site to protest against nuclear testing.

Since then, the minister and his fellow worshippers worked together to provide furniture to newly arriving refugees, to supply tutors at Edison Elementary School on the city’s west side, and install solar panels at the historic brick church on 1300 East.

They supported the Gay/Straight Alliance at East High and marched in Pride Parades. They opposed the Gulf War and the war in Iraq. They defended congregant Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who spent nearly two years in prison for interfering with a federal energy-lease sale in Utah. They voted to scrap any assets in oil, gas, coal, tar sands and oil shale from the church’s endowment.

Goldsmith is not without critics and opponents, Chambless acknowledges. “Strong men make strong enemies, as the saying goes. Tom is strong and has strong views.”

Though the two do not agree on every issue, he says, they remain close friends.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vicky Chavez closes her eyes in celebration as the Rev. Tom Goldsmith rings the First Unitarian Church bells as Chavez prepares to leave the church for the first time in three years, April 15, 2021.

The congregation, however, did agree that providing sanctuary to Vicky Chavez, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, and her two daughters, was the right thing to do.

Their stay lasted more than three years, during which many members offered countless hours to aid and serve the little family, Goldsmith explains in The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast. “It’s amazing how love can really carry us forward.”

The battle over Main Street

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The Rev. Tom Goldsmith speaks as the First Unitarian Church celebrated its 125-year anniversary at the Marriott School of Dance in 2016.

In the late 1980s and ′90s, the divide between Mormons and others “was rather stark,” Goldsmith says, “because Latter-day Saints lived in a small world.”

One particular issue, though, split the community even further: Salt Lake City’s 1999 sale of a block of Main Street to the LDS Church for a plaza.

Goldsmith and his church joined the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the city over the loss of free speech rights.

“That was huge for us,” the pastor says. “We are really not a litigious bunch.”

But when the LDS Church joined the suit, that “changed everything, especially the dynamic of one religious organization suing another,” Goldsmith says on the podcast. “I guarantee you that does not feel good all around and not what we wanted.”

Congregants at First Unitarian had Latter-day Saint neighbors, colleagues, friends and family, he says. It was “rough, but it was made clear that this was a [legal and constitutional matter] and some LDS leaders understood that.”

Goldsmith later received some “lovely letters and phone calls from several Latter-day Saint bishops,” he says, acknowledging that the dispute had nothing to do with religion.

“That took a load off my shoulders,” Goldsmith says, “so I didn’t have to hide at meetings.”

Then-Mayor Rocky Anderson, the liberal leader of Salt Lake City who worked with all parties to come up with a resolution to satisfy all sides on the question of free speech on the plaza, says now he felt betrayed by Goldsmith.

Anderson and Goldsmith were friends and the minister told the mayor he would back him on the resolution — a land-for-peace deal in which the city would swap the plaza’s easement for church-owned property, plus a commitment to raise money to build a community center on the west side. (It’s now the Sorenson Unity Center.)

Goldsmith did support the deal initially but then continued with the ACLU to fight it legally.

Eventually, the court dismissed the lawsuit, and these days the pastor says the resolution was “not a bad decision.”

For his part, Anderson still has much respect for the Unitarian preacher.

“Tom has always been terrific at speaking truth to power,” the civil rights attorney says, “and bringing people — including those outside his congregation — to work on these crucial issues.”

Fellow travelers

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) The Rev. Tom Goldsmith greets Imam Shuaib Din at an Inauguration Interfaith Prayer Service at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City in 2017.

In Goldsmith’s first years, Salt Lake City had an active ministerial association, which included such religious luminaries as the late Rev. Horace McMullen of Holladay United Church of Christ, the Rev. France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church, and Rabbi Frederick Wenger of Congregation Kol Ami.

The men became friends and mentors to Goldsmith. Over time, though, “a more conservative element started joining the meetings, and they wanted to put Christ into these meetings,” the Unitarian recalls. “It was not the orientation that some of the liberals wanted to have, so we started to pull away and the association disintegrated.”

Just before the 2002 Winter Olympics, another group emerged — the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, which included many faiths beyond Christianity.

Roundtable meetings were hosted by various Latter-day Saint officials whose assignments were interfaith outreach, Goldsmith says. “We usually met at the Lion House. It was a wonderful opportunity to work with members of the LDS faith.”

Group members “ended up liking each other so much,” he says, “we continued to help the community in an interfaith way.”

In recent years, a new group has sprouted — a progressive clergy association — and more than a dozen members are meeting monthly.

The Rev. Steve Klemz, a fellow progressive who retired last year from Salt Lake City’s Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, celebrates Goldsmith’s influence on other clergy and community members.

“He is remembered for the ways he embodies the imagination of a poet, the courage of a prophet and the wisdom of a sage,” Klemz writes in an email. “Being the gifted wordsmith that he is, Tom releases our imaginations, calling us into a new narrative for loving our neighbor, embracing justice, standing for all that supports life while standing against capital punishment.”

For the Lutheran, Goldsmith’s “laughter and good humor inspire me,” he writes. “It is as if Tom knows, deep down, that God is on the side of welcome and goodness, so laughter and justice will have their day.”

Looking to the future

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Tom Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years leading the First Unitarian Church. Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

Goldsmith will not be attending his former church as a retired minister, he says. The denomination has strict rules about outgoing pastors stepping away to allow the new ones to have their own space.

It will take anywhere from two to five years to pick his replacement, according to a search committee, so the Rev. Monica Dobbins, the assistant minister, will be leading the congregation until an interim preacher arrives.

But Goldsmith is not moving. Utah is, after all, his home.

The retiree worries about how the partisan battles that are roiling the country now will be bridged in the future.

“It is the source of so much pain and divisiveness,” he says. “I think it is important for everyone on both sides of the divide to drop their egos a bit, to sit back and try to comprehend the big picture that we ultimately must care about one another, regardless of ideology.”

All people care about their children, their homes, their friends, he says. “The basic common human decency has been dormant for too long, and we need to revive it.”

Goldsmith is going to miss the spirit of “this incredible band of progressive people who come together in a wonderful time for worship and music,” he says. “These dear people are quite a nurturing bunch.”

After his divorce in 1996, his congregants helped him celebrate his marriage to Mary Tull four years later. “They took care of me,” he said, “just as they take care of each other.”

But there is at least one thing he will not miss: those relentless Sunday sermon deadlines.