Hitting the High Notes | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

March 10, 2021 News » Cover Story

Hitting the High Notes 

Salt Lake's First Unitarian Church prepares to say farewell to its jazz-loving minister.

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  • Courtesy First Unitarian Church of SLC

If, during the past 34 years, you've attended a rally for a liberal or environmental cause or publicly protested the more egregious policies of local and national conservative politicians ranging from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, you've probably seen his face in the crowd. More likely you saw it out front reasoning and pleading for a humanistic approach to public life. The visage belongs to Tom Goldsmith, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. But you won't be seeing it as much after May 16.

At 72, Goldsmith is surrendering the pulpit and moving into active retirement. He leaves behind a legacy that's affected not only his congregants but the community at large. For example, with his congregation's financial and moral support, Reverend Tom launched the Jazz Vespers series of Sunday-evening free concerts at the church located at 1300 East at 600 South, gatherings which he personally emceed with timely humor, social commentary and musical insight. For more than 30 years, these always-packed events featured the area's top jazz musicians and up-and-comers. Some might argue they were among the most highly regarded jazz performances in the Mountain West (they can still be viewed on YouTube).

The Unitarian faith began in 16th-century Transylvania, spread during the Age of Enlightenment to Western Europe and then arrived in the U.S.—first in New England. After merging with Universalism in 1961, it commonly became abbreviated as UU. Unitarianism and Universalism have traditionally been considered "Christian" to some degree, but UU's current iteration is now less focused on mystical teachings, dogma or an afterlife reward.

Instead, the church sees its main sacrament as creating a more just and compassionate world. Along the way, Unitarian philosophy has attracted such forward thinkers as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Clara Barton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan B. Anthony, Herman Melville, Buckminster Fuller, Beatrix Potter, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Pete Seeger, and five U.S. presidents including Thomas Jefferson.

Unitarianism also attracted Goldsmith's German-born, immigrant, Jewish parents who lost their families in the Holocaust. Growing up in New York City, young Tom rubbed shoulders with UU-members who were comedy writers in early TV (possibly the source of his gift for ironic humor) or were music industry figures, which is how his love for jazz took root.

Given Unitarianism's open acceptance of people of all orientations and its lack of puritanical mores around private, personal behaviors (i.e., sex and the like), Goldsmith discloses that one of his mentors was, he says, "the famous porn writer, Ted Mark. One of his books was turned into a movie, The Man From O.R.G.Y. Ted was my high school Sunday school teacher for four years and took credit for my eventual enrollment at Harvard Divinity School." Goldsmith reveals that Mark was one of several unusual UU characters who shaped his life but quips, "I try not to think about it."

“Salt Lake City proved to be rocky ground for Unitarianism to take hold in,” says Judy Miller. This church, built in 1927, gave SLCUU a place to bloom. - JIM CATANO
  • Jim Catano
  • “Salt Lake City proved to be rocky ground for Unitarianism to take hold in,” says Judy Miller. This church, built in 1927, gave SLCUU a place to bloom.

UU Utah's Roots
After shorter ministerial gigs in Boston, Reverend Tom arrived in Salt Lake in 1987 to take the helm of Salt Lake's First Unitarian church when it was still four years shy of its centennial celebration. A Unitarian congregation had been founded 96 years earlier when a minister from Colorado, Thomas Eliot, responded to the call of Salt Lake's aspiring Unitarians to come and kick things off here in the heart of Zion.

Judy Miller, whose deceased mother, Lorille, wrote a history of SLCUU (aka First Unitarian), summarizes the congregation's initial interaction with other churches.

"Salt Lake City proved to be rocky ground for Unitarianism to take hold in," Miller notes. "The first attempt was in November 1890. After a succession of 12 ministers and the whole church taking several of what historical accounts described as 'sabbaticals or meeting in many different places, the current building was constructed in 1927. There, it finally started to flourish.'"

Miller went on to quote from the church's history, describing the initial skeptical response by local faith leaders: "Being the center for liberal, non-doctrinal thought and a forum for unpopular ideas, in 1890, an LDS apostle described the Unitarian minister as 'a smooth and dangerous opponent of our church.' In 1902, a Catholic writer wrote in The Intermountain Catholic, 'Unitarian views are the foulest blasphemy.' But since the 1920s, there have mostly been good, working, ecumenical relationships with most churches, mosques and synagogues."

Goldsmith offers specifics about the early bones of contention. "The church's first minister, Harvard-educated David Utter, introduced the hot theological topic of biblical criticism," he says. "It caused quite a stir all over town but was never perceived as a real threat to the predominant religion. There was not much social justice work at the beginning—mostly an opportunity for liberal thinkers to discuss the issues of the day often wrapped around theology. Evolution was still an urgent matter to be discussed, and liberals felt uplifted in having a place to gather freely."

The congregation's SLC home featuring Georgian classical architectural lines has expanded to more than twice its original size with additions in 1983 and 2010. Thirteen years ago, 125 solar panels were installed on the roof.

Today's Utah UU members remain politically liberal, but despite their strong backing of progressive causes and minority rights, the local, regular attendees skew older and white, tending toward the professional and college educated—myself included. The Salt Lake congregation serves around 600 people and consists primarily of transplants to Utah and disaffected, former Mormons.

The Tom and David Show
Since there's no requirement for adherence to a strict canon of theological beliefs, congregants range from atheists and agnostics to fans of Jesus, pantheists and a few believers in other deities. Working to make society function better through individual or collective positive action is how UUs "get the spirit."

First Unitarian's assistant minister, Monica Dobbins, relocated with her husband and daughter from Birmingham, Alabama, with a master's in divinity studies from Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. She hails from a Christian background and incorporates the best of what she found there into her sermons, homilies and pastoral work.

She observes that the six UU congregations in this state vary to some degree, but this is how she sees them generally in comparison to Mormonism: "Unitarian Universalism provides a counterpoint to the dominant religious culture. 'Covenant,' for UUs, represents not a binding set of beliefs or a commitment to God, but rather a set of promises made among human beings on how they will treat one another in community."

She says that UUs "consider science and reason to be equal in religious value to the inspiration of the world's religions." The church congregations cultivate a "pluralism of belief," she says, that lends itself to "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

As such, Dobbins notes, "Exploration and curiosity are prized in this faith, and a deep commitment to justice, carried out by humans who are not content to wait on God's timing."

Darlene Thayne of Bountiful is representative of UUs who were raised Mormon but sought a more liberal approach to religion. After having checked all the right LDS boxes including temple marriage, Thayne's sense of belonging started to become unsettled with the purge of Mormon intellectuals in 1993. She says she found herself "drowning in a sea of consensus" as she attempted to deal with anti-science, racist and sexist attitudes. She reports, "I found a website where I could answer questions about my beliefs. It said that I was more than 90% Unitarian, so I checked out the church and was blown away by the inclusivity, dynamic sermons and conversations, service to others, open-mindedness and allegiance to a 'free and responsible search for truth and meaning'—which was and is exactly what I needed in life."

Dylan Zwick completed a Ph.D. in math at the University of Utah in 2014 and later was off to Seattle to launch a high-tech start up. When his company's employees started working from home during COVID, he seized the opportunity to return to the Wasatch Front where his wife, María del Mar González, had been able to secure an art history faculty position at Weber State. He reflects on why UU is a good fit for his progressive social and political views: "I'm something of an abnormality in that I'm a third-generation member of the church. When I was a kid, it was my grandparents' church, and then my mother's church, and now it's mine. What has kept me in is that it's a place where I can be involved in my community with my family, and it's a home base for my activism. My church is an expression of my values, both in what we do at church and in what my church does in the world—and I love the people there."

John Rasmuson, an occasional City Weekly contributor, has also found a home at SLCUU, reflects on his journey into liberal religion, "My wife and I moved to Utah after 20 years in Massachusetts. With our New England credentials, the Unitarian Church on 1300 East had curb appeal, so we showed up one Sunday morning and found ourselves in a sunny space, plied with beautiful music and a sermon channeling Ralph Waldo Emerson. We were soon fans of what was known as 'The Tom and David Show.' Like David Letterman and Paul Shaffer, minister Tom Goldsmith sermonized and music director David Owens played complementary interludes on a grand piano."

Acts of Activism
Contemplating the approaching close of his tenure and asked to list his accomplishments, Reverend Tom responds, "It's impossible to distinguish between my accomplishments and the progressive mindset of the congregation. They were proud of new projects I brought to the table, and I was proud of their support and follow-through."

Those projects include teaming with the ACLU which represented the church as chief plaintiff in the Main Street lawsuit during which Goldsmith worked with civic and college groups to publicly articulate that the suit was not about religion but rested on constitutional grounds. He sarcastically observes, "That's before we had Mike Lee to explain to us what the Constitution really means."

Goldsmith has also led his congregation's activism on several environmental fronts such as defending church member Tim DeChristopher after the then-student's attempt to monkey-wrench the G.W. Bush administration's granting of oil and gas leases in environmentally sensitive areas. The church supported DeChristopher throughout his trial and two years' imprisonment.

The congregation's 2017 vote to become one of the 50 or so immigrant sanctuaries in the nation makes Goldsmith extremely proud. He considers sheltering from deportation Honduran asylum-seekers Vicky Chavez and her two daughters for three years and counting one of its proudest achievements.

Joan Gregory is a University of Utah librarian who leads the church's Social Justice Ministry—one of more than 20 ministries and committees functioning within the congregation. Gregory reports that of all the volunteers who run errands for Chavez, stand 24/7 watch at the church for security and support, tutor her older daughter, or provide on-site dental and doctor visits, about 70% are UU members with the rest of a corps of 150 coming from the community at large.

While Chavez is profoundly grateful for the shelter and support she receives, COVID has compounded her feelings of isolation that one would normally experience from being confined to a single building for several years—even if it is a large one. In conformity with the Unitarian Universalist Association's national guidelines, all SLCUU in-building meetings have been suspended since March 2020, meaning that the broader network Chavez interacted with through the daily comings and goings of church members has largely ceased. While she continues to see a handful of core volunteers, contracting COVID and being hospitalized would mean leaving the safety of sanctuary, so she no longer receives visits from anyone else. Facebook and interacting electronically with others in church sanctuaries across the country are her connections with the outside world. Besides raising her daughters, she also maintains sanity through hobbies such as artistic crocheting. She's producing Bernie Sanders Inauguration Mittens and Mask Dolls and donates them to the church for fundraising. It also helps take her mind off waiting for the Biden administration and Congress to enact immigration reform that will hopefully be more friendly to her appeal for permanent immigration status.

The church's shutdown has also meant that a private preschool that used the church for more than 50 years no longer operates there. Alcoholics Anonymous and other organizations including dance and musical groups that had enjoyed church space are also on hiatus.

SLCUU has continued its own operations with online sermons that are posted to the church's website each Saturday afternoon. Those are followed on Sunday by an 11 a.m. Zoom "coffee hour" in which congregants and visitors are able to interact together before breaking out into smaller chat groups.

“... One of the roles of a minister is to discard his or her own cynicism and lead a congregation with hope.” - —Rev. Tom Goldsmith - COURTESY FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH OF SLC
  • Courtesy First Unitarian Church of SLC
  • “... One of the roles of a minister is to discard his or her own cynicism and lead a congregation with hope.”—Rev. Tom Goldsmith

Hope Springs Eternal
As he considers what's going on in the world, Goldsmith's views alternate between idealistic and realistic. On one hand, he says "Every person deserves the dignity of health care, education and opportunities to fulfill their potential. The sanctity of the natural world is being trampled to satisfy immediate greed."

But then he notes, "Old Testament prophets railed against the glaring inequities in society. Jesus, too, had a few things to say about the need for greater compassion to make the world more just. Religion, if it will take itself seriously, must open the human heart beyond its own desires."

When asked how optimistic he is for such shifts to be fully realized, Goldsmith says, "We've not gotten it quite right yet, but one of the roles of a minister is to discard his or her own cynicism and lead a congregation with hope. There are enough silver linings in our many disasters for me to hold onto with all my might."

Citing an example, this minister recollects, "When same-sex marriages became legal, I wound up officiating a great many. About 20 homophobes appeared outside one morning carrying signs that described me in terrible ways. They made a lot of noise hoping to upset our worship service, but I realized halfway through that it had become completely quiet and thought they must have gone home. Instead, our high school-age Sunday School class prepared hot chocolate for them, sat down with them outside, and had a civilized conversation. It did the heart good."

As Salt Lake's UU community says goodbye to its minister for over a third of a century and searches for his replacement, Goldsmith and his abstract landscape artist wife, Mary Tull, plan post-COVID travel to see their five children and five granddaughters in Portland, Oregon; Marin County, California; and Phoenix, attending Zen retreats along the way. Creative writing is also a deferred interest as are adding to his vintage Blue Note collection of jazz vinyl records and helping to recruit donors for a scholarship being created in his name for refugee students at Salt Lake Community College facilitated by the International Rescue Committee.

Old habits die hard, however, and after his last official climb into the pulpit on May 16, Reverend Tom worries he'll get up on Sunday mornings and try to preach a sermon to Mary. If so, it will be for a much smaller but still a very politically and socially engaged congregation—one very much in the UU spirit.

Jim Catano has "hung out" at SLCUU for four years after an initial half-century stint as an active Mormon. Genealogical research indicates that a fourth great-grandfather was the Unitarian minister to President John Adams.

click to enlarge Sanctuary crafts: - Vicky Chavez’s Bernie doll - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Sanctuary crafts: Vicky Chavez’s Bernie doll

UU rallies in support of Vicky Chavez and her children
Unlike many religions, the Unitarian Universalist church is directed from the bottom up. Decisions such as calling a new minister or committing to major projects require a two-thirds majority vote by its members; full consensus is always the goal.

In 2008, the Salt Lake City UU congregation contemplated becoming a short-term sanctuary for asylum seekers but needed more information to proceed. After a lengthy study of a church's role in providing sanctuary in this country, in January 2018, SLCUU learned of the plight of Vicky Chavez and her daughters who were facing deportation after being denied permanent immigration status by the Trump administration.

The congregation voted to convert classroom space into a living area for as long as the family needed it and bear the expense of installing a high-tech security system. The U.S. government, like others in the Western world, has historically not raided churches that provide sanctuary.

On Sunday, March 7, SLCUU voted over Zoom to further support Chavez in her challenge of the constitutionality of the large fines that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has subsequently levied against her for ignoring self-deportation orders.

The initial fine was $435,832 but was lowered to just under $60,000 due to ICE's failure to follow proper procedures. Chavez continues her appeals in hopes that deportation orders will be lifted and her asylum granted and then wants to be able to start life afresh without the onerous burden of a large fine.

The church voted overwhelmingly to support her in that quest.

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