Meg Riley was born in 1955 into a Unitarian family in Charleston, West Virginia, where that religious tradition was not the norm. Her father, Charlie Wilson, was a scientist at Union Carbide and her mother, Marty, worked in an urban renewal program. Meg had an older brother and sister and younger brother. The family participated in a small Unitarian fellowship that did not have a minister. Meg grew up recognizing that her religion and values made her different from her peers.
The family moved to Akron in 1965 where Meg’s father became a professor of physics at the University of Akron. The family joined and was active in a larger Unitarian Universalist church there. Meg came of age during the social turmoil around race and the war in Viet Nam in the later 1960s, marked by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kent State shootings. She experienced judgment and ostracism from her peers, notably Christians, and found safety and support in her Unitarian Universalist (UU) community.
Looking to get away from Ohio, Meg studied at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She was part of a close-knit group of women friends there and describes that life as “pre-sexual.” Meg began to wonder about her sexuality but not enough to do anything about it. Meg observed that a number of Reed grads simply hung around the school after graduation and, not wanting to be one of those “losers” (Steve Jobs was among that crowd), she moved to St. Paul, Minnesota after her graduation in 1976.
Shortly after her arrival in the Twin Cities, Meg had a life-changing experience reading Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. After reading Daly she notes: “I realized that theology was more interesting to me than anything else in the world, and that I was a lesbian.” She set out to explore religious and lesbian communities. A UU minister she consulted made inappropriate sexual advances, so she turned away from religion and immersed herself in the lesbian community in Minneapolis. This was a richly formative couple years for Meg as she talked, thought, dreamed, lived, at, worked, loved and danced lesbian feminism. Meg also became involved in grassroots organizing around Native American (treaty) rights and the rights of small farmers in these days.
Vocationally Meg was working with children in different settings. She worked in a shelter for abused children and became intrigued with the process of human resilience. This led her to think about becoming a religious educator. In 1983 she enrolled at United Theological Seminary. Her studies and interactions there helped her move beyond her experience of Christianity being largely a judgmental and bullying force and arrive at a more profound understanding of religion.
While in seminary (1985) she took a position as religious educator at a large Unitarian Universalist Church in the area. While she thrived in the position, she was uncertain about coming out. After a couple years of trying to live back in the closet, Meg learned that the church leaders had assumed she was lesbian when she was hired. She vowed to never again hide her sexual identity.
After graduating with an M.A. degree, Meg became Youth Programs Director at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) national office in Boston. She decided to pursue ordination as a community minister, a non-parish-related status newly developed by the UUA. In 1990, she began an internship at the Church of the United Community in Roxbury and then, in 1991, added on the half-time position as Director of the UU Office of LGBT Concerns. Meg was ordained in 1992 at Arlington Street Church in Boston.
In 1992, Meg participated in the Creating Change Conference sponsored by the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force (NGLTF). Meg had been impressed that NGLTF had taken a public position against the Gulf War which led to her getting involved in NGLTF. At the Creating Change Conference she was deeply moved by presentations about the rise of the Religious Right. Meg observed that there were few other persons with religious affiliation there at the conference. Believing the LGBT religious leaders should take on the Religious Right she was moved to action. Upon her return to Boston she engaged in major research into the Religious Right at the offices of Political Research Associates. Then she hit the road for two years to speak and organize against homophobia and the Religious Right on campuses, communities and political campaigns across the U.S. She convinced the UUA to make her position full-time to allow her to do this.
The linkages between GLBT equality and other issues such as censorship and religious freedom became increasingly clear, so in 1994 she moved to Washington, D.C. to become the Director of the UUA’s Washington Office. This provided a forum for her to use her skills in organizing justice coalitions to address legislation and still speak out on LGBT issues.
In 2002, Meg became director of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff group, which encompassed all of the public witness of the UUA. One of her major achievements during this time was the launch of the national “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. This had long been the UUA’s slogan for LGBT equality, but Meg headed a team to expand it into a public advocacy campaign that generated high visibility in communities around the country.
In 2004, weary from the cyncism that pervaded Washington, and longing to be reconnected to the grassroots organizing that woke her up in the first place, Meg moved back to Minneapolis. The deep disappointment of the 2004 national political campaign led Meg to become the founding president of Faith in Public Life: A Strategic Center for Justice and the Common Good. Faith in Public Life has grown into a strong organization that brings together persons from diverse religious backgrounds to advocate strongly for justice and compassion.
In 2010, Meg left the UUA staff to become senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, whose mission is to cultivate wonder, imagination and the courage to act. This congregation without walls includes hundreds of persons in prisons, military, and other communities around the world who are linked together by online tools and resources. The web site is www.questformeaning.org.
Meg is a blogger at Huffington Post, where issues of sexuality and justice are central to her voice. She is increasingly interested in the use of social media to make deep connections among people for spiritually based resilience. Meg enjoys her life in Minneapolis with a delightfully queer 18-year-old offspring.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman in consultation with Meg Riley.)
Biography Date: January, 2015