The Reverend David Kohlmeier (MDiv ’16)
The following interview was conducted by 1st year YDS MDiv / ANS Diploma student Oliver Mesmer as part of the “Andover NewDeal” project in January, 2021.
The Rev. David Kohlmeier (MDiv ’16) is the Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth in Massachusetts. He grew up in Appalachian West Virginia as a fourth generation Jehovah’s Witness. Since coming out, he left that tradition and found Unitarian Universalism after a period of searching. He completed his Master of Divinity from Andover Newton in December 2016 and has since then served as the minster to his congregation in Falmouth. He lives with his husband and three young children, one of whom I met on camera while we talked! In our conversation, we discussed his passions for LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, and what social justice looks like in his community of Cape Cod.
How did you discern your path to ministry?
My background is that I was raised one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And I was fourth generation, which for witnesses is kind of unusual because witnesses haven’t been around that long. That was what I grew up in. That’s what I very much believed, and I left that religion around the age of 29 when I came out because there wasn’t a place for me then. I went through a long period of time where I just sort of meandered spiritually and eventually went to college to be an English teacher. That was my goal, and I remember one of my advisors saying to me at some point, “Have you considered going into ministry?” And I’m like, “No?” And she said, “Well, do you realize every paper you write is on a theological dimension of the text we’re studying, and every project you come up with on your own has been some religious component of, like, a poet or an author, so clearly that’s what’s on your mind.” I went to my ministers about it because at that point I was attending a UU church in Charleston, West Virginia. They said, “Well, yeah, we’ve been wondering for years when you’d get around to realizing you should be a minister.”
Deciding to go into ministry was like when I came out in that I was the only one not surprised by the decision. Everybody else wasn’t surprised but me. They all assumed I would. All of my friends assumed I was going to go into ministry.
My mom told me recently that when I was six years old, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said I want to grow up to teach people how to be Jehovah’s friend, which is a cute thing for a little six-year-old. I have no memory of this! So, I take that to mean that some part of me has wanted to do religious leadership since the moment I was old enough to know what it was. So, I think it’s the only thing I could do, which, I think, a lot of people going to ministry say. Now that I’ve done it for more than four years, so even harder than I thought it would be! And I also know that there’s really nothing else I could do with myself at the same time.
What was your experience like at Andover Newton? Did you have any favorite classes or professors?
When they invited me to come for a tour, I had this incredibly wonderful experience at the school. I loved that there were a lot of UU’s that went, so there were a lot of people like me who were in that place that I was in. But it wasn’t a UU school, so I couldn’t get too comfortable. I found in school that I got along really well with the Baptists because we had that deep Biblical literalist background. I could hang out with the Baptists in Bible study and that old Witness part of me was really comfortable. Then I’d go hang out with like the crazy UU’s and UCC’s…
I took Nancy Nienhuis’ “Justice Matters” class. One of the things she talked about in that class was, “Who has the standing to be a moral authority? Who do we give authority to hear them?” And that sometimes, if you’re a minister of privilege, one of the most powerful things you can do is give the standing to someone else. So, for me to step out of the pulpit and say, “This person now is the authority.” It’s striking what effect that has on people. So, I try really hard to always have guest speakers that aren’t like me, and then just let them do their thing. It’s always a really powerful moment.
When I was at ANTS, I was there when Eric Gardner happened. Ferguson happened during I think my first summer break. I remember us all gathering on the quad after the AME shooting and there being a moment of silence. And during the moment of silence, somebody putting “Black Lives Matter” buttons in our hands. And then us saying a blessing on the buttons… To wear this as a sacramental sign that you are actually going to do something about this… It was such a powerful moment. I still have that button on my stole that I wear whenever I preach on racial justice. I have held onto that button from that day. It was such a stressed thing while I was there. That really stuck with me. All that stuff was going on, and we really engaged it or at least we really tried to…
I miss all these people at ANTS. I saw Greg Mobley at an event last year and got all teary-eyed because I miss everybody terribly. So hopefully the time will come that I can go and visit again, even if it’s in a different place.
What has ministry been like since graduating?
When I first told my minister in West Virginia that I wanted to do this, I said, “What’s your advice?” And he said, “Be prepared to have your heart broken every day… And don’t give up.” Now I get it. It’s a profession that brutally breaks your heart all the time, but you also see such beauty in people. You see the best in people at the same time…
In West Virginia, it’s easy to notice the ways that progressive faith is countercultural, but I think noticing the way it’s counter-cultural in Massachusetts is very different or in Connecticut or New England in general.
What does progressive faith look like in New England?
So, a couple years ago. Trump tried to revoke the tribal sovereignty recognition for the Wampanoag, which was this shocking awareness of how fragile things like that are. I think the average, well-meaning white person around here had no clue that was a thing that could happen. And my congregation, when I first came here, they said, “Well the Wampanoag, they never return phone calls. They’re kind of off to their own.” And I’m like, “Well, of course they don’t trust us. Why would they?” And so, we just went. They did a huge rally where they were marching the border of their property with their drums and doing this whole ritual to protest what was happening. We joined them. So many of my congregants were shocked that we literally traveled ten minutes from the church and were surrounded by people that aren’t white. Like, “This has been right next to me all this time and I didn’t see it.” And because we moved with our bodies and were there for the drums and we didn’t advertise we were going. We just went. So, it wasn’t about us. It really shook them up. It really caused people to want to go deeper with that relationship. So, I think that’s one thing [progressive faith] looks like in those communities, going to these events, bringing those voices in.
We brought in some Wampanoag speakers on Sunday morning, and I said, “I want you to say whatever you want to say.” I remember one woman said, “Well if I really say what I want to say, you’re not going to like me.” And I was like, “Then please say that. I don’t know what it is.” And she talked about the experience of Wampanoag and the police and how white police treat you different if you look too “Native.” It was very jarring. I love my congregation to death, and they just didn’t know this story. So, then they wanted to do something about it.
So, what does it look like? It looks like creating spaces where you cross those barriers, where you hear those voices, and where you let it break your heart open. That’s a religious experience. You know, the transformation of learning a whole new way of life like that. That’s a religious experience.
How have things been different since Covid-19?
So, this was the year that every minister had to totally relearn our job…like completely from the ground up. With like no notice. It was a frantic few days at the beginning. We were fortunate that the UUA, the Unitarian Universal Association, put together some programs pretty quickly for ministers on how to do online worship…So… part of it sucks. I hate preaching to this little light on my computer. Like it’s just awful, but it’s really interesting how it’s shifted my people’s consciousness. because before this happened, we had had this retreat with my board leadership and one of the goals they identified was getting people out of the building. So, I’m like, “Well, we did it!” We’re forced to think in a different way, and I’m actually excited now. What of that do we take back with us in terms of thinking more broadly and more expansively.
All the time when I was in seminary, we talked a lot about how denominations are in decline. Institutional churches are collapsing. And what do you do? What’s happened is that now it’s completely diffused. Like my congregation includes people in Canada, New York, West Virginia that log in. At one point, we had people logging in from Fiji and Germany because I had people that were sort of stuck when the travel bans were going on. And then even once they got back in, their relatives in these other countries are still logging in. So, the congregation is this bigger thing. They’re starting to realize that in the zoom room with them are people in the neighborhood that have never been in the building but who are starting to think of it as their church, including a demographic that’s much more diverse. We now have Wampanoag and African Americans and different age groups. And I’m like, ‘so what do we do when the building’s back?” Do we lose that, or have we created something we can carry forward?
We’re using more resources from the denomination on Sunday mornings, so they’re also seeing people of the same faith. It’s much more expansive. This Sunday, we’re doing a joint service with the church in West Virginia that I’m from.
I’m really intrigued to see where that goes.
How will this affect how faith communities see themselves when this is all over?
Learn more about the Rev. David Kohlmeier’s ministry on his personal website.