Cassandra Austin All Souls
UU Church Today, Practice & Voice

Coming Home From War

My journey to All Souls

Joining All Souls in 2008 felt like I was coming home from war. This drastic feeling of relief was because of the battle I had fought the last few years as a member of New Dimensions Church. I was exhausted from the continuous discussions about Bishop Carlton Pearson’s teachings, now referred to as the Gospel of Inclusion. People wanted to know my “real” feelings, why I hadn’t left, and many wanted to debate the issues surrounding his shift in teaching. Unfortunately, these conversations always ended up with me having to defend my stance. Eventually, I refrained from having these conversations at all, despite wanting to communicate my experience in hopes of others taking time to listen before jumping to conclusions.

My disappointment in people I once called friends grew as I watched them abandon our church over what was simply a difference in religious opinion. It broke my heart to see how my church family split and how that split affected those I loved. It was equally heartbreaking when the reality hit. We were leaving the building we had called home for so many years. We would never again gather together as one in that intimate space. Nevertheless, I knew I was on the verge of a new beginning and I had to be all right with moving forward.

Read Jane Newman’s perspective of our 4-part series, Reflections on a Journey.

Finding our Way

After leaving our church home, we found a temporary place of worship at the Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Tulsa.

As sad as it was, at least we, the group of us who continued on with Bishop Pearson, were still together.

In our new space, the New Dimensions Chorale lead by Pastor David Smith, was my saving grace. We had become as close as any family during our years of singing, worshiping, and growing together. We found strength in our songs and in each other to continue on.

Through Bishop Pearson’s teachings about the unconditional love of God, we began to hear Rev. Marlin Lavanhar’s name. It was clear to us Bishop Pearson had made a new friend and had discovered the similarities of the Unitarian Universalist beliefs with the Gospel of Inclusion. Then, the invitation came. All Souls asked Bishop Pearson to speak and the New Dimensions Chorale to sing, and we did. It was a delightful, welcoming service and everyone at All Souls seemed to enjoy having us there. At that time, I knew nothing about Unitarians but figured it didn’t matter as long as what I experienced was the spirit in which they welcomed us and worshipped.

That first invitation to visit turned into an invitation to stay. New Dimensions began having services at All Souls in the summer of 2008. Even though things didn’t feel the same for us, we were the same people inside which made things outside tolerable. Remember, during this time of transition, the Gospel of Inclusion was shrouded in turned backs and accusations of heresy.

Settling in during unsettling times

While we were appreciative for having a space to worship, being at All Souls felt like we were wearing someone else’s clothes and they were the wrong size. During this time, Bishop Pearson attended All Souls but didn’t speak. It was odd to see him sitting in the pews and not in front of us. Then, in 2010, Bishop Pearson left Tulsa. He moved his family to Chicago and joined the Christ Universal Temple as an interim minister. When he announced his move, I couldn’t see myself continuing at All Souls. My mind was made up.

But before leaving, Bishop Pearson brought us together to discuss his move and to remind us who were are as the New Dimensions Chorale. Together, as singers and worshippers, we are as significant as any minister who stands before the people each Sunday. It was because of that meeting, and the wise leadership of Pastor David Smith, that I decided to stay with the Chorale and as a member of All Souls.

The decision to stay was difficult – and many difficulties followed. I began sensing things which I hadn’t noticed before. Not everyone at All Souls could handle the diversity we brought to the community. It was painful to see and hear people struggle with our presence. This took me back to the feelings of racial tension I experienced as a child riding a school bus with all-white children and going to school in an all-white classroom. It was hard to believe this was coming from inside a church! But it was clear many people wanted us to go away.

As an African-American woman born and raised in Oklahoma, I knew this unsettling tension still existed. I wasn’t at all surprised but I was deeply hurt. What did surprise me was what happened next.

Putting in the work

Rev. Lavanhar and fellow ministers took a head-on approach to bringing everyone at All Souls together. They insisted everyone had a place at the table and it wasn’t based on us all seeing eye to eye. By asking direct questions and listening to direct answers, All Souls made a concentrated church wide effort. The outcome of this effort was organizational change and developing and implementing tools and training to help all sides better understand each other. These programs are called SHADZ and Rewire. SHADZ is a racial justice group designed for people of color to validate and build resilience against systemic racism. SHADZ is a space to “turn off” coping mechanisms and disarm the distrust from years of having to self-protect from racism.  That program equips participants with tools to effectively challenge racism and develop allies across racial lines. It’s sister program, Rewire, is a space for white people to unlearn racism. To this day, All Souls offers this training to all members, the community, and staff. It’s amazing how far a little knowing and understanding can go.

This genuine effort paid off in ways that were unforeseen. For me, I began to feel embraced by the members and feel confident that I am a significant member of the All Souls community. Through this, I learned what loving beyond belief looks like and All Souls stands at the center of that love. All Souls is committed to its vision, to become a multiracial, multicultural, multigenerational church which practices loving beyond belief. I’m proud to be a member of All Souls for this reason. Here is a church which truly practices what they preach, and they are willing to put in the work to make their vision a reality.

Read more from our 4-part series:
Bishop Carlton Pearson’s Experimenting to Find our Symphony

Jane Newman’s Reflections on a Journey

Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar’s Opening Doors for a New Home


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