Last month, Dr. Nori Rost fulfilled her lifelong dream of moving to New York to do the work of social justice. Dedicating her life to serving the greater good, she has always felt New York, which she referred to as “the breeding ground for justice” would be the perfect place to further her mission. “I just feel like I’ve been preparing my whole life to come to New York and take on this job,” she said of her newly appointed title as Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. “It’s so much in alignment with my values, which are all about social justice and equity.”
Ethical Culture, the Humanist community housed on 64th Street and Central Park West, was founded in 1876 for the advancement of social justice. Its storied history includes starting the Visiting Nurse Service and a kindergarten for the children of blue-collar workers. What attracted Rost was the Society’s motto of “Deeds above creeds,” which, to her, translates to “It really doesn’t matter what you believe, it matters how you live your life and how your deeds impact the world for good.”
Rost grew up in Topeka, Kansas, which she quipped was “the stalwart progressive center,” and was kicked out of her house as a senior in high school for coming out as a lesbian. As a result, she joined the Air Force and that’s when she became inspired for her future career in ministry. In basic training, she was gifted a “Gideons New Testament Psalms and Proverbs,” and because trainees were not allowed any personal reading, she began reading this Bible and was captivated by the stories of Jesus, especially his work of social justice, “breaking barriers and addressing inequalities.” Due to that initial calling, she ultimately became a Christian and went on to earn her doctorate in ministry and through her theological education, realized that she wanted to spread her work to include all religions and beliefs.
As for the timing of her new placement in New York, Rost looks at it as such a fitting moment in history to make the greatest impact, as the pandemic has exposed inequalities due to factors such as poverty, race and location. And she knows her role can affect great change not just in our city, but throughout the entire country. “The changes that we can create in New York City really do trickle down to the rest of the nation,” she said.
When did you decide to go into ministry as a profession?
I wasn’t raised in a religious home. I was the youngest of five children with a single mom who was pretty much too overwhelmed on Sunday to do anything but try to rest. I didn’t become a Christian until I was 19. When I joined the Air Force, in basic training, we were given a little green “Gideons New Testament Psalms and Proverbs.” In basic training, you couldn’t read; they took away any personal reading material. And I’m a reader. So in my five minutes of free time, I began to read this New Testament and was really taken in by the stories of Jesus, particularly his social justice work ... And I began to, as I put it back in the day, fall in love with Jesus, but I didn’t know if he could fall in love with me because I already knew I was a lesbian and that wasn’t gonna change. Then one night I had this dream and in it I was at the top of a river embankment hiding behind the bushes looking down at the river where Jesus was talking to a group of people. And I didn’t know who they were, but I knew that they were all heterosexual. And I said to myself, “You can’t go down there with them, you’re a lesbian.” And in my dream, Jesus looked up at me and said, “It’s ok, Nori, I made you that way and I love you.”
Tell us about your work at Metropolitan Community Church, including Colorado’s anti-LGBTQ Amendment.
Just by coincidence, Metropolitan Community Church [a queer Christian denomination] had just started the week before in my area. So right away, I had a friendly place to go. I wasn’t raised with all of the negative, homophobic teachings that a lot of queer Christians had who grew up in the church. So I joined Metropolitan Community Church in 1981. I became a minister in 1989. I specifically went for that job because of Amendment 2 which was passed in 1992 by the citizens. It was a ballot initiative that made it on to the ballot that essentially said it was illegal if you were a local, state or county government, to include sexual orientation in your anti-discrimination clause. So you can say “We don’t discriminate on the basis of sex, race, religion,” but it was illegal to include sexual orientation. So I really felt very much called there to be a voice to the voiceless. People would ask me, “Why are you moving from Long Beach, California to Colorado Springs which is the epitome of conservatism?” And I would always say, “Dorothy Day said, ‘Go where you’re least wanted, because there you’re most needed.’” I was the queer minister of a queer church, so that was really my main reason for going out there, but also quickly became involved with the NAACP, with workers’ and women’s rights.
And it was after getting real theological education ... and then going on to get my doctorate in ministry, that I realized that what I really wanted was a social justice church of people, there could be a Jew, a Christian, an atheist, a Buddhist, but they were all doing the work of justice. And I realized that that would never be Metropolitan Community Church. It would always be very Jesus-centered. I also realized there already was a social justice church, and that’s Unitarian Universalist. So I transferred over to that denomination and was a minister at All Souls for 13 years.
It was through your ministry at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church that you were inspired by a trip to the border.
In June of 2019, I went to the border in El Paso, Texas, with Dr. William Barber and his Repairers of the Breach organization. He had called on faith leaders of all traditions to come and protest the horrific conditions there, the separation of children, they had people on the Mexican side of the border who were seeking asylum and they were in these open-air tents in this oppressive heat with these huge fans going in, but it was so inhumane. And they were denied access to faith leaders, which is a constitutional right we offer to people who are in our nation. We protested there and spoke and it was a profound moment in my life. And immigration rights is another big passion of mine.
To learn more, visit www.ethical.nyc