Hope in the Lone Star State

By Jami Yandle

I was born and raised in the South, spending my formative years along the southern Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida. It was here, in the deep roots of the religious South, that I heard my call to ministry and to service. My ministerial formation, however, took me to New York City where I attended Union Theological Seminary and served as the intern minister at Judson Memorial Church. I eventually moved into the Midwest, completing my Clinical Pastoral Education at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. I remained in Ohio, serving as a Hospice Chaplain, and fulfilling my ministerial education upon my ordination at the UU Church of Toledo.

A few years ago, I felt a strong pull to return to the South. In Ohio, the situation did not make sense for me anymore. I wanted to return home to the barbecue my tastebuds knew and loved, the sweet tea I was raised on, and the type of cornbread my grandmother made which melted in your mouth upon first bite. More so, I knew the South needed me as much as I missed it. It was time to return back home to my people, to continue to create what John Lewis called “good trouble”.

Many of my colleagues, especially those with young children, left the South in frustration and anger. They were rightly tired of the fight they had been in for so long and feared for their children’s future and were feeling the full brunt of the isolation and abandonment families experienced during the pandemic.

As a trans minister, I totally understood their concerns. But the South is my home. I was not going to allow anyone to take that away from me, so we each do what we need to do to survive. I was angry, too, and coming home to fight injustices at this time, is what I needed to do. The folks who had been fighting while I was away in New England and the Midwest needed rest and renewal, and I was ready to back them up and carry on.

Shortly after moving to Texas, erroneous legislative bill after devastating bill kept passing. I took a ministry position at San Gabriel Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a congregation with a long history in social justice actions. I had this in my background as well, so we were a perfect match. I also began serving on the board of the Texas UU Justice Ministry (TXUUJM) to prepare for organizing against these heinous attacks on humanity.

The recent 2022 midterm elections were particularly contentious in Texas, and our UU congregations showed up and turned out in big ways. Twenty-two congregations across Texas, coordinated by the Texas UU Justice Ministry and the UUA’s Side with Love Campaign and UU the Vote, were able to accomplish the largest scale organizing effort in Texas to date. Unitarian Universalists in Texas mobilized more than 500 volunteers who made 2600 hundred phone calls, sent more than half a million text messages, knocked on 630 doors, dropped 2000 pieces of literature, sent out more than 20,000 postcards and letters, registered 780 new voters, and worked 130 poll hours (thank you to Sarah Berel-Harrop of TXUUJM for compiling these statistics).

It is clear to me that we Southern UUs will do whatever it takes to ensure our UU values are represented in the public square. We also understand that the real power lies in collaboration.

Rev. Joanna Crawford, the minister of Live Oak UU Church in Cedar Park, Texas, immediately connected with me upon my move to Texas. She has helped me navigate the political landscape of the Lone Star State, which she has been doing for decades. Together, Rev. Crawford and I are the two ministers serving Williamson County, a more conservative portion of Central Texas, north of the mostly liberal state capital of Austin.

And in these 2022 midterm elections, Williamson County had the most voters in all of Texas. Yes, yes, I know, a lot of people did not vote, but right now, we are celebrating this win is a key part of hope and survival.

Talking about how this happened one day, Rev. Joanna said this about their process:

“The non-partisan Live Oak Voting Rights Team literally went door to door in the neighborhood surrounding the church, with door hangers listing information about registration and voting dates, and encouragement to vote.

Churches cannot and should not be involved in partisan activities, but individual members absolutely can advocate for candidates and policies that support our UU values. After a vocal group of anti-LGBTQ and anti-Critical Race Theory people began disrupting local school board meetings, several members of Live Oak, along with others in the wider community, created a political action committee to support school board candidates who committed to being pro-inclusion, and pro-public education. All but one of their supported candidates won, a huge victory in that area.” (If you would like to learn more about this type of community organizing, email Rev. Joanna at minister@liveoakuu.org, and she can put you in touch with those leaders.)

It’s very easy in a scarcity environment to feel lost, alone, and held hostage. The results of the election were sad for many of us working for basic human rights, but in so many ways, we still won that day. We won because we are reminded of the importance of partnership in living out our UU values in the world. We won because we reached people, motivated voters, and engaged more individuals in the process than ever before. We won because we came together and made a real difference. We won because we have a little more hope.

What happens next depends on our ability and willingness to come together in ways we have not yet seen and in a quantity we have not yet experienced. We are out of time and space for arguing. Individualism is killing us. For us to survive what comes next, we need to break down the silos we have built and lean into our partners if we want to thrive. It won’t be easy; it won’t even be fun. But my justice is bound up in yours, and in order for me to be free, I need you to be free. In order for you to be free, I need to get free. I know we can get free together, because I have seen it done. I believe in you, and I believe in us.

About the Author

Jami Yandle

The Rev. Jami Yandle (they/them) is a non-binary UU minister, graduate of Union Theological Seminary, and is a Board Certified Chaplain. Currently, Rev. Yandle serves the UUA as the Transgender Support Specialist.

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