Trigger Warning: Sexual assault and abuse of children, pedophilia
Note from Justin: One of the many wonderful people I met and worked with in Turley last year was Tori Jameson. Tori moved to Turley from the East Coast, leaving everything behind, because she was excited by and believed in the work being done at A Third Place. Her passion for the people of Turley, for the community and the good work to do, were evident every time I was around her, and few people have been more affected by the recent news that Tori. Late last night, she reached out to me and asked if she could share her thoughts. They are as follows.
Tori Jameson is a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School. She served the Welcome Table from January to December 2016.
What brought me to Welcome Table was an extraordinary ministry of a decade of missional service in the poorest part of Tulsa – a ministry that served the poor and disenfranchised by literally living among and belonging to them. The ministry did food justice work because there was a food desert and people were starving, the ministry ran a community center because there was no free, safe place to hang out and belong, the ministry ran an arts program because people needed an outlet to express themselves and a literal way to counter the decay and devastation around them. Joining Ron at the Welcome Table was an extraordinary opportunity and an affirmation of my own call to contextualized community ministry. Following in the radical way of Jesus, who mostly could be found with the people in the margins and only occasionally in the religious institutions of his day (and when there, usually stirring up trouble), I sought to do the good work of the world in service of creating a community of being and belonging for all people. In Turley, I was welcomed with open arms by a folks who chose to love and claim me as one of them. For any of the kindness I showed, I received ten fold more. My community members, many desperately poor and lacking in access to resources and education, shared meals with me, helped me move in and donated furniture for my house, and invited me into their homes and lives. I cuddled babies, chased toddlers, had deep discussions with young adults, married people on my lawn at near midnight, sat with the elderly, helped ladies find bras in the right sizes from our donation racks, chased people through the farmer’s market, prayed softly and sang loud, pulled out weeds and carrots, buried some folks and so much more.The extraordinary people of Turley showed me what resilience looks like and a deep and fierce love of place and community beyond circumstance.
I left the Welcome Table and Tulsa after only 11 months (in early December 2016) because of financial insolvency. A few months into my service, as I was falling in love with my people and my place, I asked to see the books to work on documentation for a grant. After some resistance, it came to light that the records I needed did not exist and documentation had not been occurring for quite some time. This is also the time when a young family, impacted by the missional vision Ron cast, the deep need in Turley and the ready embrace of our community of them, was set to move into the area in service to the Welcome Table but quickly exited in large part due to the same financial (non)disclosure. I began at that point to reshape my vision and hatch a plan to serve elsewhere, which was a heartbreaking decision. Further, I was bivocational, working for the mental health emergency services team in the county and then in sales for a beverage company, in addition to my work as a pastor. I didn’t mind,for a time, but the intention had not been to do that forever but move into a financially viable ministry role in quick time. Now, not only was that not the reality, but there was a constant campaign to keep the lights from being cut off and no accounting of where the donations, when received, for the light bills were being spent if not on the lights.
I first met Ron when I was in a class at Harvard Divinity on church planting for Unitarian Universalists and he was a guest presenter. I was excited to meet him and hang out with him at general assembly and connect with him further through the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, of which he was completing his term as president. I was asked alongside a few others to interview and discuss different topics in missional ministry for a series he was running on Youtube, and when the opportunity to come to Turley presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Ron had a looming presence in our very particular tributary of religious tradition (a huge fish in the tiny pond that is Christian missional movements utilizing Unitarian Universalist praxis). Ron also had impact all over Tulsa, teaching at the progressive seminary and partnering with social work programs for contextualized studies, with the local food and permaculture movement, as well as preaching and teaching community and faith groups and serving as expert on a number of panels about the needs of North Tulsa. When Ron wasn’t at one or another meeting or at the church, he could be found babysitting his grandchildren.
When I heard Thursday’s news and saw the pictures of his arrest, I could not believe it. Only a month ago, Welcome Table caught fire and I was awoken in the middle of the night by my phone ringing with a frantic call from a community member saying that Ron and his wife couldn’t be reached and that the church was on fire. I wrangled the right community people to get to the church and then contacted the Robinsons until they responded and headed down there. The loss of the majority of the functioning parts of the church building was a blow and though services had resumed (in truth, never really stopped but just relocated), the community was very much still reeling when the news of his betrayal broke. I didn’t really believe it, couldn’t believe it, thought that there was a terrible mistake despite news stories stating that he was confessing, until I read the indictment. The indictment was the single worst thing I have ever read or seen, and that is really saying something. My body stopped shaking just this morning long enough that I could drive, and my sadness has been supplanted by anger.
In theory, as a minister, Ron (and I, and every other clergy and person in a helping profession to some degree) answered a call from the divine into a life of service, giving up anonymity and a lot of personal autonomy to meet the needs of people and to reflect the divine to and in them, to nurture their best selves and love them through the worst moments, and to be present in the mundane and the extraordinary. At least, this is what I thought he was doing, but now I am less than sure. I can tell you that this is what I pledge to the people I serve, with the caveat that I am far from perfect just as they are far from perfect. I can be overbearing and mean, and when my anxiety gets the best of me, I weep and feel despondent and stuck. I am messy, though I try hard not to be, and I have a particular fondness for the f-word and ranting at times when a rant is not called for. In other words, I am human and an ordinary screw-up sometimes. The transgressions for which Ron was arrested for Thursday were an entirely different category than these sort of ordinary human foibles, and one that, I think, negates the above narrative.
The alternate view from this, the scarier view, is that Ron is and was a pedophile for a long time, long enough that the do-gooder life and ministry he created was a costume to hide what he was really about. I don’t propose this lightly- I loved this ministry and believed in this man and his vision so much that i moved across the country to join it- but the indicators seem clear in the indictment that he was deeply entrenched in this kind of pornography such that he was on a live-video-sharing website that required knowledge on how to access, that he commented in vile ways on multiple videos and he was brazen enough to show his face. According to that indictment, the entire time that my involvement at the Welcome Table was being discussed and worked out and the entire year of my service, Ron was under Federal investigation by homeland security and the sheriff’s office. The comments that he said about children (!) in the indictment were about not only sexual assault (heinous in and of itself) but subsequent physical attack and death of those children (an unspeakable horror). Clergy, and especially clergy serving in a community setting like the Welcome Table, are trusted. I was handed people’s babies all the time at the free food store to hold while they shopped, and trusted to entertain the little ones during meetings or at the garden park – and so was Ron. Such trust is a gift but also part of the job and call. It is the biggest violation imaginable for him to hold someone’s child and simultaneously to be struggling with violent and pedophiliac fantasy. Such a contradiction in a person does not fit in my theology- such a contradiction is not possible in a truly called minister, but only in a monster.
I am forced therefore to conclude that none of us knew Ron at all, and that we fell prey to his costume.Some of my community members and folks who worked alongside Ron have been quick to name that he struggled with a sin, but that he was good at the core. I am so repulsed by his repugnant act, and so betrayed by his charade, so violated by the trust given to him that he exploited, that I cannot name him as good. The impulse to call him such comes from a sense that if he is a monster, all the work done through the ministry was in vain – but this simply isn’t true. Though it was often represented as Ron’s ministry (by Ron, perhaps or by outsiders not understanding the loose connectional structure of the organization), Ron was largely not present in the year I served. The food pantry was stocked and staffed by a dedicated team that did not include Ron except for an occasional check-in, the art studio had none of his participation, he served as a figurehead in the garden park but had an allergy to manual labor and so did not work out there, I coordinated the farmers market runs alongside teams from all souls and the market and I ran our sexuality education efforts and condom distribution, a few community members ran a game night and free dinner every few weeks. Volunteers would sweep and mop and do much of the repairs, and an intern this summer ran a beautification project. Ron had access to people, a lot of access to students and volunteer teams and people on retreat and volunteers, but the continuous and diligent work was not his. His big efforts this year at the center was a push to continue dinner church, which was sporadic and poorly attended at best. The work in the past year wasn’t Ron’s, but from the community. Though my argument is that Ron ought not be honored, the work done by others in the place he happened to found still has meaning and value. That does not mean, however, that the ministry he created ought to continue. I am of the strong opinion that it should not. Welcome Table should immediately close and be left to rot with Ron in prison and the energies of the volunteers and community should be redirected to getting a new shepherding group to care for the garden park and a new organization (an extension of one of the large food justice orgs already in Tulsa, perhaps?) to immediately start a new pantry in a new location. I am even of the mind that the rest of the building ought to be razed and leveled so that Turley does not have to see and be constantly reminded of the monster that fed on their best works and greatest needs.
I am a former fundamentalist Christian, and so in my religious vocabulary and imagination is a devil who prowls the earth seeking people to devour (a rather literal reading of 1 Peter 5:8). I was taught that devil was many things – “evolutionists”, spies from the USSR, someone with a tattoo that might be a barcode, a seductive lady who dared to wear a skirt above the knee or a skirt that showed any part of the collarbone or a hint of cleavage. I gave up a literal devil as part of my leaving fundamentalism, and as a Unitarian Universalist, I pretty well gave up the idea that individuals are themselves inherently evil -I’ve written oh so many sermons and papers about that evil lives in our systems and so to eradicate evils we need to address the systems that create the evil. A reconsideration of this systemic view of evil might be in order, given that I served in ministry with a person on the prowl who has confessed to the most disgusting, heinous fantasies and speech and viewing choices one can possibly have accessed.
Ron talked so much about following in the radical way of Jesus, but he seems to have forgotten much of the speech of Jesus surrounding the responsibilities of teachers and preachers.. Matthew chapter 23, in concert with other similar statements throughout the hebrew bible and new testaments, speaks of the especial responsibilities of those given to a religious life to be doubly mindful not to fall after greed and lusts and to teach and facilitate justice and mercy. In particular, verse 27 and 28 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” To be honest, hypocrisy and wickedness are too mild a description for what Ron did.
It has been only about 54 hours since I found out about his arrest and I am far too close in to this to have worked out a fully formed adjusted theology of evil. I have spent a large portion of these hours with crying and angry people, our people, my community, who are betrayed and scared and need someone to listen to them. Ive spent most of the remaining portion ranting and crying to others myself, because I am also feeling betrayed and angry and worried about what else might arise and how Ron knowingly has hurt the people I love and children none of us will ever meet. I, along with the community in Turley and those affected beyond Turley are going to have to relearn to put one foot in front of the other and walk into the good work after evil, deception and betrayal, but it might take us all some time to get there.