Introducing PWR’s New Lead: Rev. Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe!

By Carlton Elliott Smith

photo of Rev. Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe in black shirt and rainbow stole, using a microphone, giving the closing at Ohio Pride

I’m delighted to share that Jessica York, our UUA’s Director of Congregational Life, recently announced to UUA staff that Rev. Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe (they/them) would be the new Lead for the Pacific Western Region.

I have known Rev. Sunshine for many years as a ministerial and Congregational Life staff colleague with great personal integrity, tremendous leadership skills, and an abiding dedication to our faith. I don’t know a more qualified person to take on responsibility for guiding PWR staff and congregations going forward.

Rev. Sunshine will begin as Lead July 1, 2024, upon the completion of my tenure in the role.

Below is an asynchronous interview I did with Rev. Sunshine as they are beginning to familiarize themselves with all the congregations in our region.

You are no stranger to Unitarian Universalism in this part of the country. What have your experiences been in the West, and what draws you back this way? 
I am looking forward to returning to the western part of the U.S., where I lived for 11 years, and the unique brand of Unitarian Universalism there. I found my call to ministry while serving as Spiritual Development Director at the UU Church of Tucson, AZ. In that role, I visited many congregations- sleeping on many of their floors for youth cons. I went to seminary at Starr King School for the Ministry living in Berkeley and Oakland, California, graduating in 2010. I’ve preached and taught at congregations in Oregon and Colorado. I loved the unique energy and cultures of all of those places. I cannot wait to learn more about our faith in the Pacific Western Region.

I plan to move to the Phoenix, AZ area to be closer to family and will be joined by my partner, Hobbs, who will begin their final process to being a certified therapeutic counselor. We’re excited, though I doubt our two aging cats will be quite so enthusiastic about cross country travel! Still, Hobbs and I have long talked about moving to Arizona and they are excited about this new part of our journey as well.

What do you most want UUs in the Pacific Western Region to know about you? How can they participate in your success as Lead?
I want the region to know that I have been committed to Unitarian Universalism since 1995 and as a religious professional since 2002. I have lived in 10 states across the country and served our congregations in every one of those places. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the variety of cultures, styles, and needs of those communities. As such, I cannot wait to get to know the variety of communities in the Pacific Western Region. It will be enriching and meaningful to learn from all of you.

My call has long been to help our religious communities and congregations be the most connected and spiritually grounded version of themselves so that they can do the important work our world needs. For me, as a Natural Humanist, spirituality is that which connects us to our deepest sense of meaning and purpose while living in a world of diversity and pluralism. We have long grown in our understanding of accepting that we need not have the same beliefs and ideas to be in community together. With the rise of white Christian nationalism and fascism that too often says there is only one way to be, what could be more lifesaving than to be in religious community with people who say yes to one another whole-heartedly.

For my work to succeed, I need the people of the region to communicate with me. To communicate not just when things are not going well, but also when they are going well. We build on what works well and we learn from what doesn’t. I want to get to know you and I need the Region’s patience as I learn how PWR runs and start to meet with people. I need you to trust the staff of the region and communicate with them, as well. I need your engagement and support of the Transitions Team as we co-create, as a region, the leadership structure going forward.

Mostly, I just need your presence, patience, and sense of wonder. The rest we’ll figure out together.

You’ve been a member of the Congregational Life Staff Team for the Central East Region for over five years. Tell us a lesson or two you learned in the East that you bring to West.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from the Central East Region staff team and the congregations here is this: pacing matters-especially at church. There are very few things so urgent that they need to happen right away- particularly where people are involved. We often respond to situations with a sense of urgency in order to cope with anxiety or avoid dealing with the elephant in the room. I’ve learned that when we slow down and focus on listening and intention, our congregations regulate better in all aspects of their work. It is a constant reminder to me to do the same.

Also, storytelling matters. People need to make meaning of their world and the things that happen to them. Storytelling helps heal trauma, brings deeper understanding, and gives a sense of not just where we’ve been, but where we are going. When we get stuck in or hold onto old stories of who we have been, we lose track of how we have transformed and where we want to go. If we focus on stories of where we want to go and the future, then we lose the foundation of where we’ve been.

Religious community needs to be rooted in the past- not defined by it- and open to the future. I think often of the words of comedian Tim Minchin, “be micro-ambitious.” Focusing on the short-term future and keeping our awareness on our present means we don’t miss the little opportunities for growth, connection, and transformation that are possible when we work together in community. I’ve learned to be micro-ambitious in my work with UU congregations and organizations because the process matters as much as any outcome we might imagine.

I know you deeply value your indigenous heritage from your mother’s side of the family. How do you imagine that will inform your being Regional Lead?
The earliest childhood memory I have from when I was three years old is marching in a protest in Indianapolis with my parents shouting, “hell no we won’t glow!” We were protesting the building of a power plant in Indiana. My mother taught me early and often to love justice and to do our best to resist, in her words, “the powers that be.”

I think all my identities give me a unique perspective into this work as a non-binary, transgender, eastern Cherokee, Seminole, white, neurodivergent, disabled human, from a poor family, there are a lot of things to consider. That said, the lessons my mother passed on to me are central to how I think about the world and how I lead.

I learned early and well that people are messy and complex. Owning my many identities has been a lesson in experiencing both oppression and privilege and the messy interchange of them both. My mother helped me understand the complexity of our family and its history. She raised me to embrace our traditions, to understand that I am in relationship with all of life, and rituals to recognize all of that. All while, like most BIPOC folks, experiencing racism and helping me understand it.

Most of the time, by myself, people see me as white and not multi-racial. I completely live with white privilege, and I know it. That said, it is not all of who I am. When I was with my mother, that was not the case. I was four or five the first time I remember the n-word shouted at us. It wouldn’t be the last by a long shot. What I learned from all of this is that folks’ biases are quiet until they are not. I learned to pay attention to how folks acted and not just what they said.

As I grew older, my mother made sure that I was being taught a more complete history of my communities- not just the racist “myth of the Indian” that was taught at school. From this, I learned to question every piece of information presented to me. I learned to question how I thought and how others thought about things. By birth and experience, I learned to code switch. All of these things inform my Unitarian Universalist identity, values, and leadership process.

As a lead, I believe that our UU values call us to transform white supremacy culture in this country. We need to understand the Doctrine of Discovery, the histories of the many communities that make up this country and the world. We can’t presume at first glance or thought what we may know about who people are or how they have come to where they are in their lives.

My mother’s wisdom was always to understand that there is no one way to experience life. To accept that is to hold reverence for all beings. Embracing each other and the world with curiosity and fierce grace are necessary to lead well. I frequently say- cause trouble and comfort in equal measure. That I learned from my mother.

While ministry and denominational leadership are serious matters, I know that you enjoy whimsy as well. What are some of your favorite ways to unwind and be amused?
The world is a serious place with lots of challenges and sorrows. It is also a place of joy and wonder. Like many of us, I find I can get too easily lost in the difficulties. As such, I do a few things to keep joy abundant including collecting rubber ducks, playing board games, singing, maintaining a sticker ministry, and having fun in meetings. I’ve been known to drop a joke in some meeting minutes for fun. If you meet me in person, ask for the stickers so you can have one!

I love speculative fiction- Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, and Becky Chambers especially. I love science fiction and apocalyptic movies. Not necessarily the good ones, either. Sharknado is certainly on the list of campy stuff I love.

If you’ve got a good math or science pun- I love those too!

Is there anything else you would like to share?
The world can break our hearts and it can heal them. One of my teachers at Starr King, Patti Lawrence, would often start difficult conversations with what she knew. This is what I know.

  • We will never heal the world in our lifetimes. We inherited the work of generations and to generations will give them. How we pass the work on matters.
  • In a world that too frequently says there is only one acceptable way to think or believe, Unitarian Universalist values are both subversive and salvific.
  • We are imperfect and whole beings who messily engage in religious life. That is a wonderful thing.
  • We are here to be in accountable relationship as understood in restorative justice work and covenant. Or, put in the words of Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

There is so much more that I do not know. What I do know is that working with the Staff, Regional Board, and all of the amazing religious congregations and organizations of the PWR is an opportunity for transformation and hope. I look forward to joining you on this wacky journey.

Thank you, Rev. Sunshine! Here’s to a fun and fruitful time for you and the Pacific Western Region!

About the Author

Carlton Elliott Smith

Rev. Carlton E. Smith is the Regional Lead for the Pacific Western Region. From 2013 to 2020, he was a member of the UUA Congregational Life Staff Group serving in the Southern Region....

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