122: Coffee with Jeanne Pupke

Jeanne Pupke and James Forbes

Getting 30 minutes with Rev. Jeanne Pupke this particular week was an honor and nearly miraculous since there are just seven days left in her 18-month presidential campaign! Rev. Jeanne will be in New Orleans this week for the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. In exactly one week, Saturday June 25th, 2017, all three candidates will be sweating it out as the votes are counted. And while my title won’t change based on the votes, I’ll be at the assembly praying it out as well. Your prayers are welcome too.

While I cannot give an adequate presentation of the powerful impact Unitarian Universalists have had on the United States, I know that UU clergy can. What I can do is share some of my remarkable experience being part of Rev. Jeanne Pupke’s church this year. I, a Baptist minister, and my wife, Kelli, arrived at First Unitarian Universalist Church in September 2016. My wife was a dual-degree student at Baptist Theological Seminary (Master of Divinity) and Virginia Commonwealth University (Master of Social Work). Kelli was the Social Justice Intern as part of her social work degree program so we knew we would be at this church every Sunday for the school year. I had very little expectation when I arrived. I was a veritable tabula rasa. The only expectation I believe I brought was that I would likely be, at best, a fringe member of the community that was not declaratively Christian. I could not have been more wrong.

The senior pastor, the associate pastors, the religious educator, the assistants, the interns, and the other Christian clergy in the congregation(!) were fast colleagues. But colleagues in what? How would they lead worship with a community that did not all profess to follow God in general, let alone Jesus Christ? How could I worship Jesus Christ in my seat, as someone next to me worshiped the God of Judaism, next to someone who was an atheist? How would we pray? What songs could we sing? I won’t answer these questions except to say that there are indeed answers. I knew quickly that this was a place I could “work” as a pastor because I loved what they were about. It took me just a few more months to join the congregation, all the while remaining a Christian and a Baptist minister. I was able to ally myself with the people of First UU and the values of Unitarian Universalism, integrating my experiences with my Christian beliefs. This was very significant to me and a powerful statement about Unitarian Universalists. My wife’s story is similarly powerful but I will leave that for Kelli to tell and turn focus back to today’s guest.

A Catholic nun in a previous lifetime, Rev. Jeanne Pupke has been the senior pastor at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond Virginia for over a decade. It is a religion and a congregation so radically open-minded that beliefs of different religions and no religion are embraced in the one community.  The church has grown in her time and continues its growth. In the era of donald trump they have experienced a particular surge. People are seeking community in a place that does not place them under the thumb of a narrow belief system.

As most of my Richmond relationships revolve around Christian communities, I have found myself saying through this year that our church vastly congregates around social justice missions. Rev. Jeanne leads two Sunday services at 9 and 11AM. They are powerful and deeply meaningful. There are various other groups that meet to dive into specific spiritual education and worship every week – a Christian group, Buddhist group, Jewish studies and many more. Other groups are advocating for racial justice, women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights, immigrant rights through becoming a sanctuary congregation, and much more.

I have also heard several critical voices that don’t know Rev. Jeanne or this congregation tell me they had visited this church more than ten years ago. And I don’t recognize the description. Every church has conflict; conflict is natural. There is healthy conflict happening today; the conflict of courageously moving forward. On one hand, we are not moving fast enough. On the other hand, I know that Rev. Jeanne is keeping a pulse on what we can handle, and pushing us.

I knew that Rev. Jeanne had business experience before becoming clergy. I did not know that part of that experience was in this podcast’s wheelhouse as a “coffee executive!” Mind blown. What else will we learn about Rev. Jeanne?!?! For example, who knew her exquisite drink of choice would be espresso con panna (hot espresso with cold whip cream on top)?

What’s more, I’ve been drinking in Rev. Jeanne’s wisdom and inspiration Sunday after Sunday. I’ve been talking with her in the hallways of First UU and at meetings. She knows that sometimes things are more complicated than they seem. So when she delivers wisdom that is simple, do not miss its value. It’s powerful and distilled to work in your heart and mind. When asked what she wanted to promote explicitly, it was simply this: we are one family.

When we can remember and own this truth, “we are one family,” then we will treat each other the way that we ought and the world will indeed be a better place.


Sponsor: United Faith Leaders

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond

Rev. Jeanne for UUA President!

Rev. Jeanne on Facebook

Twitter: @Jeannepupke4uua

Unitarian Universalist Association

Living the Pledge: Richmond Pledge to End Racism

Expresso Con Panna