I was working in the church office when the violence started two blocks away at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. When I realized what was happening, I went to the barricades where the Sheriff had blocked off the road to the school. The deputy there asked me to go to the elementary school parking lot where frantic parents were meeting their children.
Six years earlier, members of Denver-area UU congregations and I had started the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church. The church grew quickly, doubling its membership and developing a thriving RE program. By 1996 we’d bought and renovated a daycare center into a church.
Columbine UU Church also developed a very active social justice ministry in the Southwestern Denver suburbs. Since it was a suburb dominated by conservative evangelical churches, our church provided meeting space to local social justice groups when no one else would. The Columbine UU Church was also a Welcoming Congregation and had a rainbow flag hanging outside by the front door.
That flag was stolen several times. As were posters we hung around the community for a gay and lesbian choir performance that the church hosted. We replaced the flags and posters again and again.
After the gunfire stopped at the high school, I spent the rest of the day with parents waiting for their children. Many returned to the arms of their parents. Some did not.
A few days later, the church was used by counselors to meet with a group of teens traumatized by the violence. This group of teens had been banned from other meeting spaces because they had worn trenchcoats at school -- something also worn by the two boys who had shot and killed 13 people.
These teens hadn’t hurt anyone and had no part in the shootings. But they were scapegoated by the local community just as trenchcoat-wearing kids all over the U.S. were. Our UU church was considered a safe place for their trauma counselling.
That same day, just after that meeting, a young woman came to my office. She had just turned 18 and had come-out to her parents as lesbian. Her family had kicked her out and disowned her. The first safe place she knew to go was the UU church. As I arranged for housing for her, she told me she had considered suicide when she first realized she was a lesbian. But she had seen our rainbow flags and choir posters. Seeing these had given her the hope she needed to survive.
That one day in April, 1999, has been a touchstone for my ministry. I believe the work and ministries of our congregations can and should be life-changing and life-saving.
In my years in ministry, I’ve always had with me the love of the Unitarian Universalist congregation I was raised in. So much of what I cherished about my life was encouraged by the people of the First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio.
Before I left my hometown, I was a fourth-generation jeweler in the family business. It was a great business with deep roots in the community. I sold wedding rings to the grandchildren of folks who bought jewelry from my grandfather. The rootedness — and accountability — of a community where people have “history” with each other appeals to me in times like these. My family’s business, sustained through thousands of multi-generational relationships, thrived on the daily exchanges of our word and a handshake. We spent no money on advertising. We didn’t have to. We treated our customers with respect, and our customers sent their family and friends to us.
In the evenings after work, I sang in the choir at the First UU Church of Columbus and was active on committees and the Board. After a service one Sunday, Nancy Lee, a beloved elder of my congregation, asked me if I’d ever thought about being a minister. I was at first shocked. I hadn’t thought about it. But I realized that I was thinking about ministry at work, but not thinking about work at church. I came to say yes to my call to ministry and a life full of meaning, passion, worthy risks, and amazing encounters with the holy.
When I arrived at Starr King School for the Ministry, I found my prejudices about other religions profoundly challenged. In my first semester, I found myself in a class with two Feminist Catholics. Awestruck by their dedication to a church that deeply frustrated them, I found myself drawn to a spiritual journey with a much more open spirit and more deeply rooted in compassion. Generous and welcoming people of many faiths invited me into a bigger, more joyful journey.
My wife and I had our first child during my last year at Starr King. She found a dream job when we moved there, so I became an at-home dad for several years. I discovered a playgroup that welcomed dads as well as moms, and when they found out I was a UU minister, they asked me if we could all start a congregation — turns out, they’d been talking about Unitarian Universalism before I’d even joined the playgroup. The answer, of course, was "yes," and that playgroup later became the Mission Peak UU Congregation in Fremont, California.
Having started one congregation, I accepted an appointment by the UUA to be the New Congregation Minister for the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, Colorado, in February 1993. The people from other area congregations who were forming the Columbine church shared my longing to journey in appreciation of our spiritual diversity.
I wrote about my experiences during the tragic shootings at Columbine High School. And in the years that followed, I learned a lot about the importance of spirituality for survivors of traumatic events. Spiritual trauma is as devastating as physical and emotional trauma, and so three years after the Columbine High shootings, I co-founded the UU Trauma Response Ministry. Some of the other co-founders had ministered at the wreckage of the World Trade Center in the days after September 11, 2001. Others were police and fire chaplains.
I was first called as Senior Minister to the UU Church of Buffalo in 2000. The congregation is at the heart of the vibrant Elmwood Village neighborhood, where Buffalo’s working class meets its world-class arts and music communities.
The Buffalo congregation has a great heritage of music and worship and its ministers being active in public advocacy for justice. I continued that legacy by publicly advocating for women’s reproductive rights, mental wellness, and marriage equality.
I fell in love with interim ministry when I served our UU Fellowship in Corvallis, Oregon. I've since served in interim ministries in Canton, NY, and Rochester, NY. I currently am serving as the Interim Minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. I love the challenge of interim ministry because it requires specialized skills in managing change in congregations and requires all the skills of settled ministry, too.
All of the congregations I’ve served have a unique culture, history, and justice ministry in the larger community. It's a joyful adventure getting to know each congregation and the larger community around it.
Rev. Joel Miller