Jason Cook retrieves a navy-blue stole from a couch in his office. The reverend of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fullerton regards a patch sewn on the stole that marks his 2014 ordination: “We need not think alike to love alike.” When Cook sought to lead the church last summer, the very same quote greeted him from behind the pulpit, a sign that his seemingly unlikely path from gay Midwestern teen to a preacher in Trump times proved providential.
“People want to make a difference in the world, especially right now, but they don’t know how,” says the 42-year-old. “Our work is going to be even bigger than what we’re seeing right now.”
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Cook grew up in a Christian family. He knew he was gay by the time he reached adolescence, but the Gospels didn’t inflict a theological rift within his soul. “Christianity gave me a sense that I was of value and worthwhile,” Cook says. Only fundamentalism made him feel an outcast, something that birthed an atheistic, dismissive view of organized religion.
When Cook turned 18, he enrolled at USC as a student of Creative Writing and Film and Television Criticism. “Strangely enough, I use all of those skills for my ministry,” he says. But Cook never gave a second thought to becoming a reverend at that time. He took freelance writing jobs and sought acting roles in between assignments. “I thought of myself as some sort of storyteller; I just didn’t know what kind.”
Cook got involved in marriage-equality activism, but he craved the sense of community found at his Midwestern church. The faith-based folks he met standing in solidarity with LGBTQ rights hinted that those two worlds need not be mutually exclusive. He tried out different congregations before attending Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church in Costa Mesa, where he crossed paths with the Reverend Karen Stoyanoff, his future mentor.
“People were talking publicly in a church service about issues like marriage equality,” Cook says. “That was a big, big difference for me.” After two Sunday services, he looked into what the path to the pulpit entailed and found a vigorous one requiring a master’s degree in divinity, a lengthy psychological evaluation and chaplain service, with a series of interviews and internships along the way—all before a board in Boston makes a final decision.
Cook began his journey at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, one of two such Unitarian institutions in the nation. “I returned to the place I ran away from,” he says of the Midwest. Cook eventually interned with Stoyanoff in Anaheim before becoming an admission director at Meadville and an assistant minister in Walnut Creek up in the Bay Area.
When the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fullerton sought a new reverend, Cook was ecstatic. “I wanted to stay, and I felt like something could be accomplished,” he says.
Since taking the pulpit last August, the reverend has accomplished a number of feats: Fullerton is now the largest Unitarian church in OC and the second fastest growing midsized Unitarian church in the nation. Cook’s dynamic Martin Luther King Jr. Day sermon this year gave spirit to an active congregation that responded to Donald Trump’s inauguration by joining the OC Women’s March and protesting the president’s policies at LAX.
“These are complicated times,” Cook says. “I hope we’re able to hold on to our understanding of our common humanity across these lines of difference and division.”