Political involvement will come ‘naturally’ for Utah’s newest queer church leader

Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church embraces new minister’s “traditional and radical” approach.

Queerness is not incidental to the Rev. J Sylvan’s approach to the ministry. It is essential.

Sylvan, a bisexual and nonbinary leader who was approved last week as the new senior minister at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City by 97% of the congregation, sees the church’s mission as welcoming those who are sometimes on society’s margins — including LGBTQ believers.

“Reverend J,” as the 40-year-old minister is called, aims to help create a community of faith that is both “traditional and radical,” employing skills developed from a background in the arts, yoga and studies at Harvard Divinity School.

And the 300-plus member congregation is all-in.

A standing room-only crowd greeted Rev. J after the April 30 vote, “cheering and high-fiving” the new minister who was “taking a victory lap,” says Tim Chambless, a retired University of Utah political science professor and member of the church’s search committee.

Sylvan’s immediate predecessor, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, was a liberal firebrand who led the Unitarian church on 1300 East in Salt Lake City for 34 years until retiring in 2021.

Goldsmith, also a Harvard graduate, battled for the climate, immigrants and LGBTQ individuals and against nuclear testing and Salt Lake City’s 1999 sale of a block of Main Street to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a plaza.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Tom Goldsmith talks to his staff in 2021, retiring after 34 years at the head of First Unitarian Church.

The new leader, who uses the pronouns “they and them,” plans to address similar issues.

“I don’t think of myself as an overtly political minister, but other people think of me that way,” Rev. J says. “Being me, speaking for what I believe in will probably happen naturally.”

This year, for instance, the Utah Legislature passed a law blocking most gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors and have explored other such legislation.

“Knowing what these bills are doing to families,” the minister says, “I can speak from personal experience.”

The Unitarian pulpit will give Sylvan more opportunities, they say, to be in “an active conversation with people who are pulling the strings.”

Path to the pulpit

(Jonathan Beckley) The Rev. J Sylvan, leader of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City.

Sylvan grew up in Indiana in the 1980s and ‘90s, earned a degree in religious studies and East Asian studies, and then moved to Boston, where they wrote poetry and managed a yoga studio.

In 2016, Sylvan accepted a ministry fellowship from Harvard Divinity School, where Rev. J connected a love of religious studies with poetry and creativity.

One of Sylvan’s sermons, discussing the biblical Joseph and his rainbow-colored “princess dress,” won the school’s Billings Preaching Prize.

“We have very little idea of what the gender and sexuality systems were like when the story was written,” Rev. J says in the speech. “However, I do think it’s significant that Joseph is wearing a feminine garment.”

The sermon concludes: “May we all act as witness and support for our Josephs as we move forward into this often terrifying world. May each and every one of us feel seen and loved in the fullness of our beings. May we reject efforts to erase our sacred beauty to cast us down into the pit. May we continue every day to lift one another up.”

Rev. J and their wife, Sue, were married in 2018, according to Sylvan’s resume, “by J’s yoga teacher under a disco ball in a service hosted by a drag performer dressed as Galadriel [from ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame].” The couple have a 2-year-old son, Lucien Elijah.

Sylvan then accepted a two-year appointment as an interim minister at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston.

On many occasions, Rev. J wears a clerical collar, though it is not required of Unitarian ministers.

“I was raised culturally Catholic, and I still hold onto some of that,” Sylvan says. “That is how a priest, believed to be a servant of the divine, identified.”

For the passionate minister, who will arrive in Salt Lake City in August and give the sermon on Sept. 10, it’s an act of “reclamation.”

Rev. J doesn’t feel confrontational about it, they do it knowing they wouldn’t be allowed to be a priest in the Catholic Church and that it’s “harder for people who are perceived as women or feminine or female” to be taken seriously as ministers.

The collar, Rev. J says, “is good visual communication.”

Expansive future

Tim Chambless says most of the congregants at Salt Lake City's First Unitarian Church comes from other faiths.

The First Unitarian Church long has attracted folks who have left other denominations, particularly the Latter-day Saint faith.

Chambless says that remains the case.

“The majority of members come from other churches,” he says. “At least 35% to 40% have LDS affiliation in their background.”

Sylvan has no interest in attacking Utah’s predominant faith but believes part of the important work for First Unitarian is “to help to provide a space for people who have been harmed by religion in different ways — sometimes for political, abuse or personal reasons.”

Rev. J hopes congregants retain what they love about their former faiths and “what they want to carry with them.”

For their part, Sylvan says, “I call myself a mystical agnostic. Some of the first writers who spoke to me were medieval Catholic mystics.”

The search committee was looking for a leader who would push the congregation toward greater outreach.

“After 34 years with Tom Goldsmith, the church has changed and so has the city. It is younger, larger and more diverse.” says Chambless, who has been in Utah for more than half a century. “We were ready for a younger minister and for more diversity.”

The congregation is, he says, “ready for a new church.”

And Rev. J is ready for a new challenge.

“I am not going to be Tom Goldsmith,” Sylvan says. “I have a different voice.”

The public role of a Unitarian minister in this city, they say, remains crucial.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) The First Unitarian Church on 1300 East in Salt Lake City has a new leader.