Utah's Latest LGBTQ+ Church Leader Foresees Inevitable Political Engagement

queer, LGBTQ+
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Rev. J Sylvan, a bisexual and nonbinary leader, was most recently appointed senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. Rev. J, who has received 97% support from the congregation, wants to turn the church into a safe haven for LGBTQ believers and other outcasts of society. 

The 40-year-old priest wants to build a "traditional and radical" church community with experience in the arts, yoga, and Harvard Divinity School.

Rev. J Sylvan Becomes Senior Minister at First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, following the vote on April 30, the congregation of more than 300 people greeted Rev. J with a standing ovation and high-fives. A retired professor of political science at the University of Utah and member of the church's search committee named Tim Chambless described the atmosphere as a "victory lap" for Rev. J.

Rev. Tom Goldsmith, who oversaw the Unitarian congregation for 34 years before stepping down in 2021, is succeeded by Rev. J. The well-known liberal activist Goldsmith campaigned against nuclear testing, the 1999 sale of a block of Main Street to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and other causes including the environment, immigrants, and LGBTQ people.

The new leader, who refers to themselves as "they" and "them," wants to address the same problems. Rev. J agrees that standing up for their beliefs will come naturally even though they do not consider themselves overtly political preachers. The Utah Legislature, for instance, approved a measure prohibiting the majority of gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth this year and is currently exploring other similar legislation.

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A Renaissance Leader Bringing Creativity and Inclusivity to First Unitarian Church

The First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City has reaffirmed its commitment to advancing inclusivity and assisting underrepresented populations with Rev. J's selection to the senior pastor position. Sylvan, who was raised in Indiana after being born in the Midwest, eventually attended Indiana University in Bloomington and graduated with a B.A. in East Asian Studies and Religious Studies in 2006.

Sylvan moved to Boston to pursue their love of the arts, where they started writing, performing, and teaching poetry to children. Sylvan has established themselves as a significant literary character with two novels, The Spark Singer (2009) and Kissing Oscar Wilde (2013), as well as countless articles, poems, and short stories in periodicals including The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and The Toast.

Sylvan graduated from the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in 2012 with a certification as a yoga teacher, after which she managed and instructed at a yoga studio in Somerville, Massachusetts. They simultaneously became fully absorbed in Boston's theater and performing arts scene, creating and staging a large number of stage plays between 2012 and 2020.

In 2016, Sylvan's path brought them to Harvard Divinity School, where they accepted a Ministry Fellowship, spent three years researching, and produced Beloved King: A Queer Bible Musical, their thesis project. Broadway World praised the endeavor, describing it as "a brilliant concept show with a bright future."

A drag performer costumed as Galadriel, who, according to Tolkien Gateway, is a character from "Lord of the Rings," hosted Rev. J and Sue's unorthodox wedding in 2018, which was ordained by their yoga instructor and held under a disco ball. Lucien Elijah, the couple's 2-year-old son, is their only child.

After their time at Harvard Divinity School, Sylvan received a two-year appointment as an interim minister at the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston. Although it is not necessary for Unitarian ministers, Rev. J frequently chooses to wear a clerical collar in their ministry. The Rev. is dedicated to establishing an inclusive and accepting atmosphere for all congregation members at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, which is evident in their diverse personal experiences and choices in ministry.

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