Minister Search Committee

Members of the Minister Search Committee were elected at the June 2022 Congregational Meeting. Committee. The Search Committee is following the UU Settlement Handbook and policies to help identify the next full time minister for First U.

Margaret Gonwa, Committee Chair

I became a member of First Unitarian Church of Chicago about 25 years ago when my husband and I sought a congregation which would impart values and ethics to our children in a non-credal, diverse environment. We found Unitarian Universalism! Our now adult children, Gabe and Claire Henriques, grew up in the First U RE program, including participating in the Coming of Age curriculum, OWL and social justice activities. Then-minister Theresa Cooley’s sermons were a mix of reflections on timely events and spiritual exploration which spoke to us. We became members and started making great friends.

Having long ago left the traditional faith in which I was raised, Unitarian Universalism provided the perfect home for an atheist. I believe in Unitarian Universalism and feel its focus on human agency in building a better world and solving our problems makes it the faith tradition that will help us survive as a people. The 7 principles provide a value system and guidance from how we conduct ourselves as individuals to how we
connect with the planet.

I have had a 25+ year career as a director in non-profit, community-based economic development organizations creating job training and placement programs in manufacturing, construction, weatherization, information technology, entrepreneurship and social enterprises. In the non-profit
world, my work also included grant writing, managing foundation grants and government funding contracts, strategic planning, organizational development, and policy and advocacy. Many of these skills have come in handy in my volunteer activities at First Unitarian. When I’m not working or volunteering, I enjoy travel, hiking, reading, theater, gardening, and cooking.

In my early years at First U, I was keenly interested in my kids’ participation in the RE program and volunteered as an RE Teacher and RE Council member. I served on the Committee on Ministry and the Strategic Planning Committee, chaired the Annual Pledge Drive several times, served as Marketing Coordinator on the Capital Campaign Leadership Team, helped conduct the search for our Interim Minister, Rev. Don Cameron, participated on the 8th Principle Task Force, and served as immediate past President of the First U Board of Trustees. I am an enthusiastic Talent Auction participant offering dinners for 12-14 guests and enjoying the friendship and bonding with other First Uers at their events. For fun, I’ve organized hikes and nature outings in the Cook County Forest Preserves for our members.

Currently, in addition to chairing the Search Committee for our new permanent Minister, I am on the Membership Committee focusing on outreach and new member growth, on the Green Sanctuary Committee, and I’m looking forward to throwing my energy into a newly-forming committee on Reproductive Rights.

Why participate on the Search Committee? For First Unitarian, I feel we are facing one of the most consequential decisions for our congregation given the profile of our membership and trends in modern religious participation. Our next minister will need to be inspiring and energizing, creative in worship practices, responsive to our diverse congregation, understanding of the state and future of religion and capable of assisting us with growth. A tall order, for sure, and our search team will put in the work to find our best match. I bring knowledge of our history and culture, yet I’m primarily focused on the future and strategic planning for growth. I bring the perspective of an atheist and humanist who believes that First U has the potential to become the church home for people from all backgrounds, but especially for people who are seeking an alternative to traditional religions, or no religion; who are seeking a community focused on spiritual growth as well as social justice. We’re a hidden gem and our new minister will be a key partner in serving current members and reaching out to newcomers.

Daughon Langner

I grew up in a multi-faith household in Texas where my parents taught me about their Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist beliefs. I also have vivid memories of attending various First People’s ceremonies in our community as a child. That taught me how each person can draw such unique benefits from different religions, and the value of learning about all faith traditions.

After attending ceremonies performed by my aunt who is a UU minister and attending UU church in Austin during college, I felt comfortable making Unitarian Universalism my home.  When I moved to Chicago in 2004 for grad school in Clinical Psychology, I attended Second Unitarian and taught RE classes.  UU Religious Education is a valuable part of parenting our 10-year-old twin boys, and I’m looking forward to their continued path of education and exploration.  When our boys were little, we began attending First U, but it wasn’t until 2021 that I officially became a member after some soul searching during the pandemic.

I’ve been able to serve on First U’s RE Counsel for several years has been a great experience, and now have the honor of being the Chairperson.  I enjoyed working with the DLRE search committee recently, and I’ve volunteered with First U’s Membership and the Green Sanctuary Committees as well. Recently I became an OWL Facilitator, and I’m looking forward to teaching OWL this school year. Often in my work I help clients grow through histories of trauma to build healthy relationships, and the OWL curriculum has been a particularly valuable perspective.  I’ve also been able to participate in the Humanist Group and Soul Matters which has been a soul-warming experience to enjoy our congregation’s enriching perspectives and ideas.

For fun our family enjoys hiking, camping, kayaking, swimming, and more recently starting campfires from farro-rods. I love being outdoors and my next adventures will likely involve survival classes to learn more about foraging and shelter building.

I was excited to join the Search Committee to bring a parent’s perspective on helping the church grow as a welcoming home for new families. Coming from a family of religious diversity, I value a minister who can meet the needs of a wide range of needs. As a clinical psychologist, I enjoy interviewing people to find their strengths and best fit for long lasting relationships. I’m hopeful we’ll find someone to nourish our current congregation and build our church into the future.

Evelyn N. Johnson

I was raised in another faith tradition, but I really started my spiritual journey at First Unitarian Church when I was a teenager. I tried attending a fellowship when I went away to college. However, I didn’t commit myself until I signed the Membership Book at FirstU in 1983. When I got married, and I put my first son in a Catholic school, I realized that First U was where I wanted my children to  get their moral and ethical values – so I taught Religious Education and served on the RE Council. I have participated on many other committees and councils, including the Crypt Committee, the Board of Trustees, the Search Committee (which brought the Rev. Nina Grey to our church), the Committee on Ministry, Membership, Choir, Music and Worship sub-committee, the Humanist Group and Pastoral Care. I, along with Madeira Myrieckes and Cindy Pardo, and later Cheryl Wegner, organized the annual Talent Auctions (one of our church’s favorite fundraisers). I continue to work as a volunteer in the church office. In 2007, I took on the position of Parish Clerk; a position I continue to hold. 
Outside of First U, I served as a representative to CAUUC (Chicago Area UU Caucus), and later I served eight years on the MWRSCC, (Midwest Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy), which evaluated candidates for the UU ministry. I attended my first General Assembly in 2019.

Since having served on the 2021-22 Board of Trustees, I am now on the 8th Principle Task Force, and with Barbara Randolph co-designed and co-lead an Adult Education discussion group titled “Current Perspectives on Race & Racism.” 

Why another stint on a Search Committee? All I can say is this is my home. I love First U. Having come from another faith tradition, and having studied several others, Unitarianism is the only one that fits me like a glove. I would not be happy anywhere else. And, having grown up in Hyde Park, I have known the members of this congregation, some for most of my life. We are a unique bunch! And I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I am also keenly aware that we are standing on a precipice. I feel I have an obligation to work toward bringing us back from the edge. Sam Cooke originally sang “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964. I want to be a part of that change.

Leslie Davis

I was raised in the Catholic church and attended Catholic schools through high school.  After college I began attending All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC, embracing the idea of a faith that pulls from many wisdom traditions.  The minister at All Souls, Reverend David Eaton, was a dynamic speaker and insightful speaker, as well as an influential leader of a large and diverse church community, which drew me back week after week.  While at All Souls, I also participated in numerous adult religious education programs and anticipated the monthly musical performances by the Jubilee Singers. 

After relocating to Chicago in 1990 and visiting the local Unitarian churches, I chose to join First Unitarian, whose congregational diversity and welcoming community, shared similarities to what I had experienced at All Souls.  First Unitarian has been a touchstone for my spiritual life and a unifying entity for my family – my wedding, my (now young adult) children’s dedications, and many holidays were celebrated at First U. Over the decades, I have also enjoyed and appreciated my fellowship with many members and friends.

In my 30 years as a member, I have served this church in various capacities. I was previously co-Chair of the annual stewardship campaign, a former Chair of the budget committee, and for the last several years a member of the Finance Committee.  However, most of my church volunteering has centered on the church’s Religious Education program, where I was an RE teacher for over 10 years, a member of the RE Council, and twice served on DRE Search Committees.  My children both participated in RE for many years including OWL classes and completion of the Coming-of-Age curriculum. As the pandemic quarantine measures ease, I am enthused about seeing the RE program return to offering its robust programming for children and expanding its offerings under the Lifespan RE banner.  

I volunteered to serve on the Search Committee out of a desire to contribute another voice to the committee’s process and out of concern for the future of the congregation.  The next leader of this church will face challenges regarding membership, rebuilding of the church community in a post-pandemic era and addressing divisions regarding the 8thPrinciple, in addition to a minister’s typical duties and responsibilities.  However, I also believe our church’s positive attributes outweigh its challenges, which will allow us to attract desirable candidates to lead our church in the years ahead.  

Natasha Walker

Natasha is a new member and works for Google, supporting Executive Operations in the Real Estate and Workplace Services organization. She has deep expertise in efficiency and process improvement, as well as Strategy, Operations, and Organizational Design.

Natasha has an MBA from the University of Chicago – Booth, an MS in Industrial Engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and earned a BS in Industrial Engineering from Kettering University. Prior to Google, she worked at Disney, managing a project to centralize HR Operations across the Enterprise (from seven distinct business units), and previously supported theme park operations and efficiency in an internal consulting capacity. She has additional experience in Operations consulting (mostly LEAN transformation) at McKinsey & Company and in manufacturing and distribution at Pepperidge Farm and General Motors.

Natasha lives in Chicago and is a single mom to three. She was raised on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. She loves to read, attend opera at the Lyric, plan tea parties, sing in the First U Choir, and serve on the Board of Free Spirit Media. She is also currently serving as the Developmental Board Chair for Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU).

Ross Blythe

I’ve lived in the Midwest all my life and in Chicago for the last 9 years, recently settling in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood. I pay the bills by working for a software company, but outside of work I enjoy reading, dancing (swing dances like Lindy Hop and Blues dances), historical fencing, walking with Remedy – my dog, and playing video games with my spouse.

I was brought up in and around Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and UCC churches, but never felt any connection to the ‘spiritual’ or metaphysical claims. Despite some mistrust of religious institutions, after college I got a job with Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, an environmental nonprofit that works specifically with houses of worship, hoping to earn a living in green/efficiency sectors. I was impressed by the environmental work of the Ann Arbor Unitarian Church, and recall sheepishly asking one of the Unitarian board members if any atheists attended. A good natured eye-roll assured me that yes, indeed, atheists were welcome. Fast forward to the pandemic, and remembering that comment, I began attending First U online services looking for a group of people committed to making positive change in the world, to feel less isolated and alone in facing the challenges of today, to continue learning and growing. I’ve since gotten involved with the Humanist Group and took on chairing the Green Sanctuary Committee. 

Specifically for the Search Committee, I hope to bring a perspective and sensitivity for the ‘church adverse’. My friends are surprised when I tell them I go to church. I’m the only one of my friends my age who does. I believe the problems facing us as a planet and society are problems of collective action that aren’t solvable by atomized populations. I believe in the promise of First Unitarian – a diverse community with all kinds of metaphysical, cultural, spiritual, and experiential backgrounds that take on the messy work of being together. This atheist believes churches have a role to play motivating and solving those problems. 

Virginia Pace

Virginia, her husband, and three children (now 9, 12 and 13) live in Hyde Park and you can often find her at Big Marsh, Promontory Point, or the 31st Street Skate Park unsuccessfully trying to tire her children out. Her favorite getaways are camping and canoeing (with the occasional portage) where there are no screens and the fish are plentiful. Virginia founded and oversaw a small business focused on affordable housing consultancy which she ran for 23 years, specializing in financing apartment buildings throughout Illinois and Iowa. As part of the First U Finance Committee, Virginia used some of this knowledge to track the expenditures for the capital campaign improvements and most recently helped develop the church budget forecasts. 

Virginia was raised in a Presbyterian Church in a rural town in Texas. She was attracted to First U (around 5 years ago) as she wanted to find a community that educated about and actively addressed pressing social justice issues and provided good educational opportunities for her children. Her children have particularly enjoyed the OWL classes. She and her husband want to expose their children to knowledge of multiple faiths and traditions while looking for inspiration and education on social justice issues that interest her. Importantly, they sought to join a community that not only respected but celebrated all people and the environment. As we and our children are bombarded every day with negative messages of our society, Virginia wants to hear constructive messages of potential possible changes (personally and as a community), inspirational stories, practical actions she can take, as well as celebration of the uniqueness and special talents we each have to offer while at First U. 

Virginia joined the search committee to help identify the next minister who could inspire and help First U grow into a larger, more robust community. She believes that First U could and should be much more than it is today – that there are so many people who want to be part of a supportive community focused on learning and living social justice. She believes that such a community should be fun, supportive, and through shared friendships and experiences, be able to tackle difficult subjects in a compassionate and helpful way.  She hopes that some of her experience with changing directions over time in an organization, her love of trying out new things, and being open to possibilities and new ideas will be helpful to the goals of the search committee.