Meeting The Unitarian’s Gay Pastor

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - November 16, 2011
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Rev. Jonipher Kwong. Photo courtesy Unitarian Church

This Sunday, The Rev. Dr. Jonipher Kwong will be installed as Settled Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu. Kwong will be the church’s first openly gay minister in its 50-year history. Here is a Q&A I did with him.

Congratulations on your installation.

Thank you.

By selecting you, an openly gay man to lead them, your congregation is making a bold statement.

It’s a very exciting new direction, I believe. They are ready to make that public statement that we welcome everybody here.

So tell me a little bit about the Unitarian Church.

The Unitarian Universalists have a history that goes back to before 325 A.D. There was a group of people that didn’t quite buy in on the orthodox position (of Christianity), and this group of people was branded as heretics. It’s interesting. Heresy means to choose. And they chose to believe something else. And so we like to say that kind of thinking and the ability to choose, the freedom to choose, has existed since then.

Benjamin Franklin went to a Unitarian church, and Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and several other prominent Protestants had Unitarian leanings.

What are the core values of the Unitarian Church?

We are non-credo and we’re non dogmatic, so people are not asked to profess anything in particular. It’s not our theology that binds us. We do not have to think alike to love alike.

However, we do have principles that basically tell us that we’re here to promote and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. They’re about seeking spiritual growth and promoting acceptance of one another. Concepts like peace, justice and liberty for our entire world community.

It’s about seeking right relationships with one another ... and promoting social justice.

You’ve been involved with some civil issues, same-sex marriage for one. Some would see that as political.

Some would call that political. I call it very much in alignment of what we’re promoting, the values we would like to see lived out in society. Marriage, for example. I don’t necessarily see it as just a bunch of rights or the signing of a piece of paper. For me it has to do with people who are loving and committed to one another, and they want to make a public acknowledgment of their relationship in front of their family and in front of their friends. It’s my responsibility as a minister to be able to be there with them and provide my pastoral presence for people who want to do that, and to have that kind of celebration.

And it’s similarly the responsibility of our government and our state to provide those benefits so that those families will be able to thrive as well.

The other piece to that are issues like bullying. I don’t see it as merely rights, I see it as people’s ability to live a happy, healthy life in society. And they can’t do that if they’re picked on in school because of who they are, and if they’re constantly having suicidal thoughts because they think their existence doesn’t matter in this world.

What about your own personal journey? Was it difficult for you to not only come out, but to come to the realization that this was your calling to be who you are and to spread this particular message?

Absolutely. If I am not my authentic self as a minister, then I cannot expect my congregation to be their authentic selves either. And we’d all be just a bunch of charlatans and fakes in this community together.

If I can’t send a picture of me and my partner to my friends and family for the holidays, then what kind of example am I setting? And is it even worth it to consider those people to be my friends if they don’t see me for who I truly am?

I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of but something to be celebrated.

Are you encouraged by the way society is progressing? At the direction society is headed?

You know, I am, actually. It all starts, of course, with the circles that are closest to you.

But I’m hearing, and I’m witnessing more now, people’s minds opening. And even in evangelical Christian circles, recent studies have shown that especially the young people are becoming more open toward marriage equality, and they’re becoming more open to the acceptance of LGBT people. So I do see hope, and I do see movement.

As Unitarians, we do have this long history of standing with those who have been marginalized. It’s our turn now to stand on the side of love.

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