Rev. Jason Lydon, who in August took over as minister at Second Unitarian Church of Chicago, 656 W. Barry Ave., said that his Lake View church has a long legacy of activism he hopes to see it "lean into" in the years ahead.
"We are striving to be a welcoming communityall people are welcome to be here," Lydon said. "During the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s, this was a place where as many as 200 funerals happened for men of AIDS-related illnesses. We want to continue making a space that is affirming, justice-seeking and that welcomes all people."
A native of Massachusetts, Lydon has been a Chicago resident for about two years. During 2012-2017, he was head of the not-for-profit organization Black and Pink, which advocated on behalf of LGBT and HIV-positive persons in incarceration.
"I founded Black and Pink after I had gotten out of prison," he said. "I'd done six months in prison for an act of civil disobedience. I experienced a lot of violence by prison staff and was in queer-segregated cells in county jails in Georgia, and was in solitary confinement for 45 days in a federal prison in Massachusetts."
When Lydon was released in 2003, national LGBT organizations had little interest in prison reform issues.
"Folks would say, 'We're not really working on thatthat's not really an issue for us,'" he recalled. "I was very frustrated, so Black and Pink really began as a response to that, really building up connections with prisoners. It started with me just writing my friends, people who'd looked out for me, so I'd wanted to look out for them. Over the years, more folks got involved on the outside writing letters."
Among Black and PInk's efforts were a newspaper with prisoner-created content, direct advocacy that supported prisoner-led organizations and organizing against solitary confinement, and chapters opened across the country.
"It's now an organization of about 16,000-18,000 prisoners across the country," Lydon added. "It's by far the largest network of LGBTQ and HIV-positive prisoners, supporting each other directly but also working to abolish the prison-industrial complex."
Prior to his organizational work, Lydon was at Community Church of Boston during 2005-12.
"I'd always had 'roots' in faith based work," he said. "I've been a Unitarian Universalist kind of my whole life, starting when I was a 9-year-old. My parents started seminary school but decided not to become ministers, and I ended up on that path instead."
Lydon said that he expects Second Unitarian to continue to pursue social justice community-based initiatives, particularly ones surrounding racial equality and immigrant and refugee rights.
"The way I believe change happens in the word is when communities of people come together to support each other, work on conflict, share values and figure out how we go about living in this world that is so broken," he added. "How do we engage each other lovingly? How do we challenge injustice? How do we nurture each other through transitions in life? That's the way I work in secular organizing, and it just feels so appropriate to keep that, and build it up, in faith-based organizing and the ministry of church life."