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New Unitarian pastor to encourage love, community, acceptance

River Falls resident Derek Washington stands in front of the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls (UUSRF), where he is the new minister.

Derek Washington found the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls during a time in his life when he was questioning life and spirituality.

He found the UU, which encourages "a free and responsible search for truth," to fit his spiritual needs, after meeting previous UUSRF minister Ted Tollefson at a ministerium gathering.

Washington has a background in ministry, so when Tollefson announced his plans to move on from the UUSRF, Washington did some soul-searching and decided he wanted to apply to fill the vacant minister position.

"I believe I'm fitted to gently lead people and encourage people in a direction of love and community," Washington said. "I'm 56 now and a few years ago went through a deep depression mid-life kind of stuff where you ask what life's all about.

"I realize that being a part of a community, offering my gifts of hospitality and compassion and a little bit of administration, maybe, and any wisdom that I might have to help folks in this life that seems to be what I was fitted for."

Washington had held past leadership roles in churches of other denominations, but said he felt constricted by some church's doctrines.

He believes he'll bring to the new position "sensitivity and tenderness for people who have suffered from spiritual abuse."

"Often soul violence and soul wounding is done by good people who don't know they are wounding others by stating or implying that someone does not measure up to God's standard unless they acknowledge and confess that they are doomed to eternal damnation in hell unless they subscribe to a certain belief system," Washington said.

"The way I see things, considering others to be doomed to hellfire because they have not subscribed to a particular belief system is immoral, and history has shown that such 'unregenerate' people have been exploited because they are considered less worthy, less sacred and therefore less valuable.

"History bears out that more violence has been done on earth by people either defending or protecting their God than any other reason. This is terribly sad. It's time for a better world. One that we all believe is possible. I want to be a part of bringing that better world as I serve at the Unitarian Universalist congregation in River Falls."

Washington said the UUSRF is a welcoming, accepting place for all.

"(The UU) principles of affirming everyone regardless of gender, regardless of sexuality, or regardless of religion or race is beautiful to me," Washington said.

Washington began leading services once a month in July. He'll move to speaking twice a month — the usual for a minister at the UUSRF — starting Jan. 1.

As he begins his ministry, Washington said he doesn't necessarily hope to bring anything new to the UU, but rather more of the values that brought him to the UUSRF in the first place.

"I hope to bring a continued sense of expanding our understanding, of belonging and offering respect and honor and dignity to others in this world," Washington said. "...just reminding each other that we are lovely, we are beautiful, everyone is worthy of respect dignity and love."

Washington said his ministry style is very right-brained and not didactic.

"I more often paint word pictures and collages," Washington said. "I love incorporating music scenes from TV shows and movies on the screen. I would love to get to the place where we used Twitter feeds during the service so people can tweet questions as somebody's speaking."

He said he welcomes questions during the service.

Washington said he also enjoys adding music to his messages. He plays the celtic harp and has produced seven albums of original music.

Unitarian Universalists share some basic principles guiding behavior, but UU members' faiths are all personal. Washington said that's one of the things he finds beautiful about UUSRF.

"There are people who believe in God, and there are people who don't believe in God. They honor one another where they're at," he said. "So there will be folks who celebrate Christmas and Christ coming into the world, and there will be others who celebrate the christlike consciousness coming into the world and the goodness of that story, whether they believe in that person or not."

Washington also serves as a spiritual advisor for a hospice, working with the dying and their families.

He moved to River Falls about 12 years ago with his wife and three children.

Washington said he's looking forward to the official start of his ministry in January and also to the UU's upcoming services, including a Dec. 21 Winter Solstice celebration and a Dec. 24 Christmas Eve celebration with Celtic harp music.

Learn more about the UUSRF at uusrf.org. The place of worship is at N8010 Hwy. 65, town of River Falls.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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