It’s between semesters so am back in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but just for two weeks. Due to circumstances out of my control, I’m not able to spend my usual month—mid-December to mid-January—here in the high desert. When I am here, though, I usually visit the Unitarian Universalist Church (UUC) of Las Cruces and so drove over there last Sunday to attend the 10:30 a.m. service. Some of the faces were familiar. There were many folks I did not recognize. The place was packed—standing-room only.
One of the familiar faces belonged to Tom Packard, a retired pediatrician, from New Hampshire. I remember Tom from a couple of years ago when he stood up during the “Joys and Sorrows” portion of the service to adamantly deny “charges of aggravated felonious sexual assault” that had been brought against him by several young girls. During “Joys and Sorrows,” people are free to tell their own stories in a supportive environment. I remember last year as well when Tom reported to the congregation regarding his upcoming trial—all the while claiming his innocence.
My librarian daughter, who also likes to attend the UUC when she’s in Las Cruces, easily accessed newspaper coverage of Tom Packard’s legal process. Apparently, the case was wrapped up last summer (2018) when Tom pled guilty to a “lesser charge of felony assault,” as he “admitted to the reckless infliction of mental anguish during the genital examinations of three young girls between 1981 and 1986.” Here is the link.
So, Tom continues to attend this UUC congregation and from what I can see, the parishioners continue to welcome him. Last Sunday he sat in the front row, participating in the activities of the service. Nobody recoiled in his presence. Other times, I’ve seen him function as a greeter, welcoming people as they arrive for Sunday service. He’s also served as an usher during the offertory.
It’s hard for me to imagine most churches welcoming a felon into their midst. The Protestant, conservative churches I attended growing up tolerated nothing of the sort. Adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, and sexual predators, if discovered, were censored and told to repent of their sinful ways. Once repentant, they were put through various stages of “shunning,” depending on how deviant those men in charge considered their behavior to be. Should they fall back into their old ways, excommunication soon followed.
The UUC in Las Cruces, based on my own church experiences, seems unusual. This congregation is made up of mainly White, middle-class people; however, last summer (2018) they called an African-American man, the Reverend Dr. Xolani Kacela to be their minister. In addition, much like the prophets in the Hebrew Bible (unlike so many preachers today who seem more fearful of offending their parishioners than proclaiming truth), those who speak from the UUC pulpit are not afraid to call out those officials in our government who oppress the poor—whether that oppression be in the form of White supremacy, a border wall, or tax cuts for the wealthy.
There are seven principles that Unitarian Universalists follow. The first principle asserts the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Everybody possesses value because of their humanity. It was evident to me that the congregation practices this principle as they include Tom, as much as possible, into their midst. (The court ruled he’s not allowed to be around children younger than 16 years old unless they are related to him.)
How do we respond to people who have treated us as worthless, having no dignity? I often hear the following refrain from someone who has been harmed by another: “I just want justice to be served.” “Justice” can range from monetary compensation to imprisonment to the death penalty. How do we determine what is “just?” I think the UUC has kept Tom’s dignity in mind as they continue to welcome him into their fellowship. We are social beings. Human contact, to some degree or another, is vital for our survival and development. “Shunning” a person, I dare say, is an affront to their dignity. Furthermore, is it possible for a person to experience redemption in isolation? Whatever the process of redemption involves, it seems to me that living within a social context is essential for it to occur.
I have more questions than I have answers right now. I think of the many men (like Tom) accused (and often found guilty) of sexual assault in recent times brought about in large part by the #MeToo movement. How do we navigate our lives with dignity in relation to those men who assault us? If I had been one of Tom’s victims, would I have the strength to remain in the same community with him? Would I even want to?
How can we all thrive while balancing our responsibility towards both victim and perpetrator? I’m sure there is no set formula to effectively navigate what many consider to be a quagmire. The first principle of the UUC points in the direction of healing and wholeness, leaving a lot of space for individual and communal creativity. So often we are all too eager to isolate, reproach, and punish those who have violated us. Those who have been violated can easily spew hatred or become paralyzed while cocooning themselves in a shell of self-pity. If we are all one (as many people assert), do we not hurt and diminish our own selves when we seek revenge or become embittered instead of practicing compassion towards both parties—the one who has inflicted an injury as well as the one who has been injured?
Observing the UUC last Sunday practice their first principle—affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person—was a powerful experience. People did not fawn over Tom. Neither did they condescend to him. Tom took his place among the congregants, wounded, yet still alive, and I’d like to think, hopeful.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.