It is with great delight that I share with you the news of the two latest members of Congregational Life Staff for the Pacific Western Region — Rev. Summer Albayati and Dr. Melissa James! Summer will begin with us Monday, August 3, and Melissa September 8.
Summer, whose last name is pronounced el-bay-EH-tee, is a UU Muslim of Iraqi descent who brings extensive experience in leadership development, strategic planning, multiculturalism, curriculum development/programming, outreach, organizational development, grant writing, interfaith dialogue, conflict resolution and mediation.
She has worked within indigenous communities and communities of color, advocating for equity in education, increasing numbers of students of color who enter into universities, developing youth leaders, leading gifted and special education programs, and creating training/professional development for educators.
As a professional Arabic drummer and singer since the age of 12, Summer brings an aspect to worship that reflects the Islamic aesthetic of connection with the divine. She has used her gifts to create multicultural experiences within worship in congregations across southern California. With a deep call to social justice, much of Summer’s life was spent drumming/singing for benefits to aid orphans and to protest wars and occupations in the Middle East. This gave her a foundation to explore the intersectionality between speaking prophetically, making music, healing spirits, and doing social justice work, all while reflecting on Islam as a theology of liberation.
In serving congregations, Summer’s focus was on transformation by emphasizing that a mission-focused congregation increases vitality, membership, commitment to justice and love. Summer says, “It has been my personal mission to inspire our beloved congregations to live their faith out loud, transforming their communities, and thereby the world, as we are all called to do. I am thrilled to serve in the Pacific Western Region where I have lived and served my whole life.”
Summer’s current podcast, “The Bayat Beat,” a commentary on society and culture with an emphasis on social justice, has a global audience. She has served on the board of UU Mystics in Community, contributed to their quarterly newsletter, and written a chapter in the anthology Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity and Power in Ministry, published by Skinner House.
Melissa brings nearly 20 years of experience in faith-based ministry to the UUA. She earned her Masters of Arts from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC) with a focus was on faith and justice. Melissa holds a Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. While working on her doctorate, she served at First Unitarian Universalist in Oakland, CA and got her first taste of the power and possibilities of religious education in a Unitarian Universalist context.
She went on to serve at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego as the Director of Family and Lifespan Ministry. In 2016, she was named as a Fahs Fellow through the Fahs Collaborative at Meadville Lombard Seminary focusing on helping congregations support Trans and non-binary children, youth, and their families. Having worked in campus ministry as well as continuing to teach at local universities in sociology, religion, philosophy, and gender studies, Melissa lifts up the work of young adults.
Based in Southern California, Melissa is an ordained Deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). When asked what she foresees bringing into her work as UUA Congregational Life staff from Lutheran tradition, she reflected on its deep history and theology of reformation. “We are constantly reforming as individuals and institutions as we are called deeper into loving our neighbor,” Melissa said. “We do justice not because without us it would not happen, but because we are free, in love, to do so.”
It is this deep resonance with Unitarian Universalism that has continually drawn Melissa to the UU world.
"I believe Unitarian Universalism has an important and unique role to play in these uncertain times,” Melissa says. "I have personally seen the incredible heart and work that is happening in the PWR and am excited to be joining the PWR Congregational Life staff team as we live into our commitment to side with love together."
Please join us in welcoming Melissa and Summer to our team!