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First Unitarian Church SLC members overwhelmingly choose queer leader

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In a resounding display of support, a bisexual and nonbinary leader was approved as the new senior minister at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City by an overwhelming 97 percent of the congregation. The community, consisting of over 300 members, eagerly anticipates Rev. J Sylvan’s arrival in the Fall and embraces their unique approach to ministry, which places queerness at the forefront.

Affectionately known as “Reverend J,” the 40-year-old minister envisions a community of faith that seamlessly integrates tradition and radicalism. Rev. J brings to the pulpit a diverse range of skills honed through their background in the arts, yoga, and studies at Harvard Divinity School.

The congregation’s enthusiastic endorsement was evident during a recent standing-room-only gathering that celebrated Rev. J after the vote on April 30. Members of the church, who cheered and gave a standing ovation, warmly welcomed the new minister, who took a symbolic victory lap around the premises, complete with high-fives.

Rev. J’s immediate predecessor, Rev. Tom Goldsmith, led the Unitarian church on 1300 East in Salt Lake City for an impressive 34 years before retiring in 2021. Also a Harvard graduate, Rev. Goldsmith ardently advocated for various causes, including the environment, immigrant rights, LGBTQ equality, and opposition to nuclear testing. He also voiced his dissent against Salt Lake City’s controversial 1999 sale of a block of Main Street to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the creation of a plaza.

Rev. J sees their ministry as an opportunity to address pressing issues, including recent legislation in Utah that restricts gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors. Drawing from personal experiences, Rev. J emphasizes the profound impact such legislation has on families. While they don’t consider themselves overtly political, Rev. J acknowledges the perception that others may have of them and anticipates naturally expressing their beliefs.

Rev. J’s path to the pulpit was shaped by a diverse range of experiences. Growing up in Indiana during the 1980s and ’90s, they pursued a degree in religious studies and East Asian studies before relocating to Boston. There, they explored their passions for poetry and managed a yoga studio. In 2016, Rev. J received a ministry fellowship from Harvard Divinity School, which allowed them to fuse their love for religious studies with their creative inclinations. Their sermon on the biblical Joseph and his rainbow-colored “princess dress” earned them the prestigious Billings Preaching Prize.

Rev. J and their wife, Sue, exchanged vows in 2018 in a ceremony officiated by Rev. J’s yoga teacher, with a drag performer dressed as Galadriel from “Lord of the Rings” fame in attendance. The couple shares the joy of raising their 2-year-old son, Lucien Elijah.

Rev. J often dons a clerical collar, though it is not a requirement for Unitarian ministers. Their decision to wear it stems from a personal connection to their Catholic upbringing, viewing it as an act of reclamation.

Rev. J acknowledges the challenges faced by those perceived as women, feminine, or female, in being taken seriously as ministers and recognizes the collar as a visual means of communication.

The First Unitarian Church has long attracted individuals who have departed from other denominations, particularly those who left the Mormon Church.

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