Her deep royal purple robe and stole overlaid with violet and gold fluttered as she moved through the congregation, hugging people with a tight embrace. There was an intimate moment as she stood alone, in front of the altar and lit candles, amidst the chatter of the attendees at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland.
Rays of sun streamed through the stained glass windows into the sanctuary. The sounds of the choir singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” carried throughout the room while a few hundred people joyously stood up and clapped along. Then Reverend Jacqueline Duhart led the congregation in prayer in a commanding yet soothing voice—ending the prayer with “Ashay,” which means blessing.
It was Duhart’s first Sunday leading services after her installation as Minister for Faith in Action for the church earlier in October. And it was the century-old church’s first Sunday led by someone like Duhart, who calls herself a “female–identified lesbian of African descent.” But for Duhart, this has been a lifelong spiritual journey that led her to the faith of Unitarian Unitarianism then to the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion that calls upon its members, friends and allies to search for spiritual growth. Its theology derives from many other religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism. The faith asks its members to think in an intellectual and thoughtful manner beyond their personal lives.
Seated in her office as natural light poured in on a late Wednesday afternoon, Duhart said that even as a small child she was fascinated with spirituality. “From a little girl, I always wanted to be a minister,” she said. “I would say to my grandma, I wanted to be an angel. She said angels are in heaven. Then I said I wanted to be a nun. She said she didn’t know any nuns that are black. I said I wanted to be a preacher. My grandma said, ‘Yes, you can be a my little preacher girl.’”
Duhart did not begin her career in the church. She spent a large portion of her life connected to the military. Her father was in the Army, so she traveled for a large part of her childhood.
Growing up, Duhart wanted the opportunity to help and work with people. So she attended the University of Texas, Arlington for her masters degree and became a clinical social worker. After graduation, Duhart worked with families who had a child in the juvenile justice system. Because she spoke Spanish fluently, she primarily interacted with many Spanish-speaking families.
Then, after a few years, she joined the Air Force to serve as a clinical social worker. “For a while, I managed a domestic violence program. For a while, I managed an inpatient substance abuse program. I was in the first Gulf War, so I worked with soldiers in the thick of the battle,” she said.
Duhart was based on in Dover, Delaware, Missouri Arizona, Alaska and Spain. But when she went overseas for the Gulf War, she oversaw a stress-management tent, which helped enlisted people and officers who faced difficulties adjusting to war. During another time in her career, she also worked with people who had married a military service member, and who had never been to the United States before—for example, a Korean woman who married an American soldier while he was on tour in Korea. “I think the poignant memories for me were working with families—particularly women and children who were coming from a context with little meaning about living in the U.S.,” she said.
After 20 years of service in the military, an officer can retire; Duhart decided to retire from the Air Force after 21 years.
While Duhart devoted her life to helping others during her time in the military, her personal life was taking a pivotal turn. She had been married to a man and had a son. But when Duhart was about 35 years old, she came out as a lesbian while in the midst of her divorce from her husband. “I grew up in a heterosexual, traditional family where there weren’t models or conversations around there being opportunities for something other than heterosexual,” she said. “It took me a long time to realize, ‘Oh, that’s why relationships with men don’t work!’”
She reflected on her own experience coming out. “I think, as an African-descent person, going through the maze of sexual orientation and identification is still a journey,” she said softly. “It still is for many.” She added that during the period when she came out, the military was following the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “Back then you just stay[ed] in the closet,” she said. But she now is open about her sexuality and has a fiancée, Cynthia. “We are in the midst of planning what’s next,” she said about their marriage plans.
When asked about her son, who is now 29, Duhart shifted in her seat excitedly and spoke of him proudly. “He is in the Air Force now, and he has one year left,” she said. “He is the joy of my life!”
Religion has always been part of her life, although she grew up with many different faiths “I went to Catholic school. I was baptized in a Baptist church. [I was] married to a man that was Methodist Episcopal. I found my way to a Presbyterian church and then to a New Age church,” she said. She was brought to a Unitarian Universalist church by a mixed race couple who were “same-gender loving,” as Duhart puts it. “I went to their church one Sunday and never left,” she said.
After her long stint in the Air Force, Duhart owned a private practice as a social worker and worked with an organization, Standing Together Against Rape (STAR), in Anchorage. But she still longed to be a minister, just as she had when she was a little girl. Her move to the Bay Area in 2004 was prompted by her decision to study at Berkeley’s Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universal seminary.
At Starr King, Duhart went through a four-year long academic program that involved internships and intensive training to to serve as an ordained minister. In 2010, Duhart began working for the First Unitarian Church of Oakland as the Assistant Minister for Community Engagement. “I was working with congregants to engage their spiritual practice within the church, beyond the church, and in the West Oakland community,” she said.
The church sits on the corner of 14th Street and Castro Street in downtown Oakland. The congregation prides itself on accepting people of any religion, sexual orientation, and race. It has played central roles in Oakland’s deeply rooted social movements and actions such as Occupy Oakland, where the church served as a meeting place and refuel station for the occupiers.
When Duhart was hired, she was given a hire-to-call contract, which meant at some point if the members felt like Duhart was a good fit they had the opportunity to call on her for a settle ministry position. This is a position that is an ongoing relationship between Duhart and the church as long as the relationship was working for both parties. There was a vote among the members of the church to have her elected as a Minister for Faith in Action. She defines this job title as a role to help create a more just world for all, and to help church members put their faith into action. “My job is to help congregants to be the change they wish to see in their families, in the neighborhoods, and in the world,” she said. By accepting this position, she believes now that this shows her deeper commitment to the church congregants and to the work of the church.
Duhart’s installation on October 5 was a celebration of her new leadership as she stepped into the role. Around 350 people members of the church attended that Sunday afternoon to welcome her into her new position. Duhart stood radiantly on the stage, commanding attention as she stood at the center of the altar with a smile. She twirled around and raised her hands to the audience with a youthful exuberance; her yellow, black, and orange toned robe was a cheerful touch to the already celebratory day.
Natural light poured through the windows and voices rang as the entire church sang songs of praise. Some of her close colleagues came to give words of encouragement and blessings, including Mayor Jean Quan, who Duhart worked with through the group, Genesis, a faith and justice community organization. Quan entered the congregation wearing Duhart’s favorite color, purple, and declared October 5, 2014 to be “Reverend Jacqueline Kay Duhart Day” in the city of Oakland.
“It was a bit surprising and overwhelming,” Duhart said a few days later in her office. “It was very emotional [to have] that level of love and respect and care, and affirmation.”
Duhart believes that her experiences as a social worker in the military supports her work with her congregation. “Being a social worker has really prepared me well to be a minister,” she said, leaning back in her office chair and recalling her previous work with soldiers in wartime, victims of domestic abuse and addicts. (a sentence of a variety of human experience in every congregation).“When you think about a system that all of that stuff is happening in the hospital,” she said, “it is the same stuff that is happening in the congregation.”
Duhart believes in using her faith and the faith of the church to show commitment to the community through social actions on issues like clean water, transportation accessibility, immigration reform, and incarceration. She attended a national day of protest against police brutality and justice system bias in Oakland on October 22 as First Unitarian’s new minister and led a pledge about everyone being treated as human beings—regardless of race or gender.
“I love being part of a faith tradition that says we can stand on the side of love with our allies and friends and make a difference,” she said. “That is what church is about—making a difference in the world.”