Friday, 14 June 2019 00:00
By Kristiana Briscoe, SMARTACUS Creative Group | Lifestyle
Known simply as “Rev. Joe” to those who attend his Sunday services, the Rev. Joseph Cleveland just competed his fifth year as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs, more simply known as "UU Saratoga." 

He grew up grew up in Minnesota and attended St. John's University, a Catholic institution, in Collegeville, earning his bachelor's degree in English with a minor in philosophy. He had started as a physics major but soon found that his passion for words exceeded his interest in particles and waves. He decided to become a college professor, and so he came east to Syracuse University to earn his master's degree in English. 

Cleveland had been exposed to music as a child, becoming a trumpet player in sixth grade. But he became passionate about the guitar in college and graduate school. While he was determined to teach, his love for folk music pulled him in another direction entirely. 

A Space for Music 

In the mid 1990s, Cleveland was spending much of his time at the Happy Endings Cake and Coffeehouse in Syracuse. Shelby Crowley had opened it as a post-retirement venture with the encouragement of friends and co-workers who loved her cheesecakes and deserts. She and her son John welcomed music into their establishment, and it became the Central New York equivalent of Caffe Lena, a performance space for touring and local musicians. 

The Crowleys hired Cleveland, just three years out of college, to manage the series. It evolved into Folkus and it's still Central New York's leading venue for folk and acoustic music. After establishing Folkus as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in 2000, Cleveland brought the series to the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse in 2003. 

So it was that Cleveland simultaneously discovered Unitarian Universalism and met the woman who would soon become his wife, Kristin. 

"She was a member of the congregation who was putting together an alternative worship experience called "Soulful Sundowns," Cleveland recalls. "She was tasked with looking for someone to do music and someone suggested she give me a call."  

He didn’t know anything about Unitarian Universalism, but he loved what he calls the "openness" of the faith and was in seminary by 2009, on his way to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. 

“I was amazed by the eagerness to look for spiritual inspiration from all kinds of places and sources as well as the openness to world religions, science, and one’s own intuition. I couldn’t get enough of it. So here I am.”

Following his ordination in 2013, Cleveland spent a year as interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Michigan while keeping an eye out for opportunities that would bring him back to Upstate New York. 

“Saratoga Springs was looking for someone, and it turned out we liked each other and so they called me to start out here,” he says. Kristin found her religious home at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady, where she serves as congregational life coordinator. 

The 'Network of Mutuality'

“A UU service will look not very different from a standard mainstream Protestant service.” Cleveland explains. “The main difference is the theological outlook of the service. It’s really focused and grounded in celebrating the dignity and worth of every human person. Unitarian Universalists were involved early on in the civil rights movement and in the fight for equal rights for LGBT folk and marriage equality. So my own interest in justice combines with my interest in a broad range of religious inspirations. This religious tradition brings both of these things together in ways that continually inspire me.”

“We are focused on the inherent worth and dignity of every person as well as the ways in which we are all interdependent with one another," he continues. "We respect the 'network of mutuality' that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  used to talk about, He said, 'I can’t be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be,' and vice versa. What we do affects one another and we need to pay attention to that."

A Sanctuary Congregation

Last year, UU Saratoga became a Sanctuary Congregation, joining the growing national effort to protect and stand with immigrants facing deportation. Members pledge to protect immigrant families who face workplace discrimination or unjust deportation. Unitarian Universalists nationally are joining the many religious leaders, congregations, and faith-based organizations of all denominations who are a part of this movement. 

“I don’t think loving your neighbor as you love yourself looks like building a wall between you both,” Cleveland adds. “We try to create the beloved community and stand up when we think that people are being disrespected and harmed.”

UU Saratoga strives to raise children to learn to grow in faith. Among its offerings is a healthy sexuality curriculum called "Our Whole Lives" that begins with children as young as kindergarten through second grade. Environmental issues are also a major focus. 

A 'World of Respect'

“We have to pass on a livable planet to our youth," says Cleveland. "A world of respect and love, a world where different perspectives are celebrated as contributions to the fullness of our life experience, instead of a world where differences are repressed and oppressed.” 

To get there, we all must expand what Cleveland calls our "theological savvy.”

"I’m trying to give people a set of tools to become more nimble at creating meaning in their lives."


The SMARTACUS Creative Group is a student-driven creative agency dedicated to supporting the economic development of Upstate New York. A junior in Jill Cowburn's journalism class at Saratoga Springs High School, Kristiana Briscoe is interested in music and writing. 
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