Rev. Constance Simon Begins Historic Ministry
at First Church
By: Janet Walsh
For Constance M. Simon and the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, April 29, 2018, felt like a date with destiny.
On that sunny spring Sunday, all 182 of the voting church members present, casting secret ballots, unanimously selected Simon – or Rev. Connie, as she prefers to be known – to become their next settled minister. She is the first woman of color to be called to the position in First Church’s 188-year history.
Rev. Connie begins her First Church ministry on Aug. 1, 2018. To say she’s excited puts it mildly. “Everything I’ve done in my life, every experience, has prepared me for this moment,” she says.
Family and CareerRev. Connie’s journey to First Church began in the rural southeastern Pennsylvania community of Oxford. She is the youngest of four children – “a surprise,” she says.
Rev. Connie gets her love of music from her mother, a pianist and soprano who also served as music director and organist of their Presbyterian church. After her father died when she was only 7, her mother worked from home as a seamstress to help make ends meet. Rev. Connie learned to make do with scrambled eggs for supper and to babysit and substitute as a pianist at her aunt’s church to earn money for school trips.
A precocious student, she entered elementary school a year early and graduated from high school at 16, initially entering college as a music major. Soon, however, the lure of the television media age motivated her to earn a telecommunications bachelor’s degree from Indiana University (she later completed a master’s degree in telecommunications regulation), with her sights set on running the CBS network. When “they wouldn’t have me,” she accepted a full academic scholarship to Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.
Rev. Connie’s diverse career history includes experience as tax counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, working at the corporate level in the telecommunications industry, a position in banking, owning a small business, and time in non-profit organizations. “Every decision was intentional,” she says, all linked by a desire to lead by example and serve others.
TheologyRev. Connie received her Master of Divinity from Unitarian Universalist (UU) seminary Meadville Lombard Theological School on May 20, 2018 – nine years after she entered a Unitarian Universalist Church in Philadelphia looking for a meditation session and finding a denomination.
After reading UU’s six sources and seven principles, she was hooked. “They sucked me in right away and I’ve never left,” she said.
She describes herself as a non-theist with humanist leanings and Christian sympathies.
“For me, the Divine is love … it’s a force that shapes us and guides us, and we want to be in harmony with that power. The Universalist in me comes from the fact that I believe that force touches everyone,” she says. She’s convinced no one is excluded from the power of love, though some may choose to reject it.
As for “Christian sympathies,” being a UU for Rev. Connie means honoring all six of its sources, which include the lessons that Christianity provides about loving others as ourselves. “I don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected,” she says. “I do believe that he was the ultimate social justice warrior. Jesus was an amazing teacher.”
Confronting Racism and OppressionRev. Connie enters her ministry at First Church at a time when the UU denomination is facing its own issues with inclusivity in leadership, seeking the path needed to embrace true multicultural diversity. She believes it’s a pivotal moment in UU history, and she’s glad she will be in Cincinnati as it occurs.
“It feels especially exciting for me to be here because this congregation has been doing so much in that regard that it’s probably 20 years ahead of other congregations,” she says. While acknowledging much more needs to be accomplished, she cites as a notable step the church’s ongoing work to reconcile with and celebrate the Rev. W.G.H. Carter, who established a storefront Unitarian church in downtown Cincinnati in 1918 that was shunned by the national Unitarian church and local UUs, including First Church.
At the same time, Rev. Connie stresses that she alone cannot bring about the changes needed to transform First Church’s predominantly white, upper middle-class congregation into a more ethnically and culturally diverse community. “We have to do it together. I wish I had magical power and could just stand outside and all of sudden the people will just come flowing in. I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s going to take all of us working together and showing people what is possible,” she says.
Despite a divisive political backdrop in the nation that often seeks to exploit differences, Rev. Connie is optimistic about the prospects for change. “I truly believe that it’s possible,” she says. “We have the capacity to do it.”
Initial PrioritiesRev. Connie will be formally installed as First Church minister on Oct. 28, 2018. One of her mentors, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, a former Cincinnatian who grew up in First Church and has served as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, will preach the sermon.
As she begins her ministry in Cincinnati, Rev. Connie has a few priorities in mind. First and foremost is a lot of listening, a process that’s already under way.
“I’ve been asking all of the committees, all of the groups, ‘What are you most proud of? What are you disappointed about? What do you think is missing?’” After she arrives, she plans to establish “open times” during which members of the congregation can visit with her and share their thoughts.
She also wants to drill down on what multiculturalism means internally and, with the congregation, explore how current practices might become more inclusive.
“What does multiculturalism truly mean? It means welcoming people regardless of their physical abilities, the color of their skin, who they love, how much money they have, how many degrees they have, all of those things. I want to … understand where we are.”
And Rev. Connie wants to spend time getting to know Cincinnati better. Already, she’s made friends in Avondale at the Shiloh Food Pantry, supported by First Church, and South Avondale School, where she spent time in the kindergarten literacy tutoring program conducted by First Church volunteers.
She even promised a kindergartner named NaDavia she’d be back in August to welcome her to first grade – a commitment she was prepared to keep regardless of the vote on her ministry.
“That little girl could have been me 50 years ago … and it was important to me for her to see adult role models in all colors who came in and showed interest,” she says.
Answering the Call
The First Church Ministerial Selection Committee did its homework over the nearly two-year period spent prior to unanimously proposing Rev. Connie as minister. So did she. The result was an exceptional fit of qualities sought by both.
Equally important, Rev. Connie brings to her ministry an empathetic perspective shaped by life experiences that range from growing up poor, to facing discrimination, to earning three college degrees, to working in corporate America, to directing an emergency housing agency.
“I know what educational privilege is like and I know what it’s like to walk into a store and have somebody say, ‘We don’t have layaway.’… I know what it’s like to be stopped by police in your own neighborhood and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’
“It’s real. It’s real, and all of that makes me the minister that I am.”
Janet Walsh is a writer and communications professional who recently retired from Cincinnati Public Schools. She joined First Church in 2017.