Rev. John Hudson
Pastor, West Concord Union Church, United Church of Christ

1317 Main Street
Interviewed August 17, 2001

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Concord's Faith Community

Hudson, Rev. John.I've heard lately that all theology and all spirituality is essentially autobiographical. So it's very tied up with my story as a person. The fact that as a teenager I felt a bit lost, felt like I was outside the community looking in, the church was the one place where I felt welcomed and felt kind of completely embraced for who I was. So that started the road to inspiration. I think as I got older I just came to recognize that the church, and in particular the Congregational Church, was an institution that was really committed to making the world a better place. The church also works on behalf of lots of people who are mostly forgotten or often discarded by the rest of the world, the poor, divorced, single parents, gays and lesbians, folks of color, just everyone who is kind of left behind in the world. The Christian church at its best gives those folks a place of honor at the table and actually works harder than just about anybody else to make sure they feel included and loved. I felt from a very young age that I wanted to work in a vocation that would really make a difference. So that was really my inspiration for going into the ministry.

There are a couple of side things such as when I walked into my minister's office when I was fifteen and I saw that he had all these books and part of his job was just to read books and think. I loved the idea of getting paid to think and to think about really important issues, and then to be expected to kind of form ideas and opinions about them and share those with people. I can't think of a better job.

I was born into the Catholic Church not the Congregational Church. When I was fourteen, there weren't any youth groups in the Catholic Church and there was one at the Congregational Church and that was where I was invited and welcomed. There are still parts of me that feel very Roman Catholic with a small "r" and a small "c", but clearly this is my church home and my church family. It really was the youth group that made me identify with the Congregational Church.

I worked with a youth group at the Acton Congregational Church for about three years where we reached about 60 members. We were really helping young people have faith that could help them live their lives and handle the hard decisions when it came to things like drug use or violence or sexuality and provide kind of a safe place and a good community for them. It also gave them the chance to work in their world and make it a better place.

I came to the West Concord Union Church in August 2000. I had been serving in Rhode Island for about five and a half years, but I felt called to go back to the Boston area because I was born in Dorchester and grew up in Quincy and much of my family is around here. And, I really missed being in an urban area and an urban-influenced area and all the things that go along with that, the culture, the arts, liberal politics, social progressive ideas and ideals. I loved Rhode Island, but I knew it was just a way station for me. Actually I've been trying to get back to Boston and thinking about it since I graduated from seminary at Boston University in 1989. So I knew this area very well. But it kind of came out of the blue. The church was given my résumé by our state church office and they called me. I wasn't sure I wanted to go to a smaller church as I had been serving a church about twice the size of this. But clearly when I made a connection with the search committee here, I saw the church and I saw both how solid it is, how faith based people are here, how willing they are to dig into their faith and ask themselves what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century, that I was excited about coming here.

The uniqueness of the church is that it is a village church. It's a neighborhood church and that's very rare nowadays. People identify very strongly with both the church and with being in West Concord. And then it's a beautiful location. I can walk everywhere, train station, grocery store, bookstore, bike store, and I can be in Boston in a half an hour. There are about 300 members. We get about 150 people on Sunday mornings. Probably about 25% of our people walk to church.

I think we differ from the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Concord Center because we're smaller, our church has more of a family feel with a small "f". It's not hard to get to know everybody or most of the folks in the church. It's more laid back, a little less formal, a little less high pressure. I think there is a bit more of an intimate feel here and with a smaller group of people it is easier to reach consensus around contentious issues like welcoming gays and lesbians. There is more chance for one-on-one contact between the pastor and the people. Just our histories are different. The history of this church is that it was the church of working class folks. It was the church of the prison guards, and it was the church of the wool workers. The church in a traditional sense truly is the other side of the tracks, which I guess is the way people used to refer to West Concord and still do sometimes. But I think everyone over in West Concord would say that's just fine.

I also think that for me Jesus Christ was clearly a counter-cultural figure who was up and against a culture that he found himself in. So churches are called to be counter-cultural institutions and not just mirrors of the world they live in, but to actually engage that world and challenge it to be different. I think it is easier for small churches to be counter-cultural than it is for bigger churches. I served the Peacedale Congregational Church in South Kingston, Rhode Island for six years and that was like the church on the green that everybody went to and was "the" church in town. That was a great time, but I felt like I wanted to be in a different place.

The West Concord Union Church is not an establishment church and that makes it easier for us to be a little bit more outside boundaries. The name of the church goes back to the union church movement, which was big in the United States and particularly in this area at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. At that time a lot of Protestant groups sprung up that were nondenominational and were focused more on an individual's Christianity and faith and less on specific denominations. We were never in a way a Congregational Church or a Baptist Church or a Methodist Church. We kind of came together ecumenically. It was only in 1957 that the church chose to join a denomination and that was the United Church of Christ. Most Congregational Churches in the world are also United Church of Christ. So from the beginning we drew people from different denominations and different faith backgrounds.

I write a weekly column for the Concord Journal, which I hope raises the visibility of the faith community and encourages people to think spiritually. I think everyone is spiritual whether they would name it that or not. I think all of us are seeking another dimension to life beyond what we can grasp with our senses and that at a very deep level as human beings we're looking for some meaning and purpose to the lives that we live beyond accumulating lots of wealth or buying big houses or driving new cars. Sometimes we can get caught up in that and imagine that somehow it's satisfying us, but I think at the end of the day or at 2:00 in the morning and you're staring up at the ceiling, you know that all that stuff does not make for a more loving life or a more satisfying life. When we're able to tap into that sense of spirituality, it reminds us that we're part of the larger community that's beyond our own little world or our little family or our little town, and that some power greater than ourselves is always calling us to be with each other and to be for each other and also to look at life spiritually. What the newspaper column allows me to do is to challenge people who may or may not be connected to a faith tradition to think of their lives in spiritual terms, to recognize their responsibility as residents of the planet, and to imagine that their life can have meaning and purpose beyond just serving themselves or their own needs. Nowadays the media, television, newspapers, movies, is how you get the message across. The Journal probably has a circulation of 8000 or 9000 and I reach 150 people on Sunday morning and mostly the same people, so through the Journal I can reach a lot more people very quickly.

It's interesting, there is and there isn't growth in the numbers of people attending church these days. What's happened is that the movement away has been slowed. As a percentage of the population, those who claim to attend church on a regular basis has really not changed much since the ‘70s. It's actually dipped a bit. The peak was in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. I think it's not so much about numbers as it's about people perceiving that that is happening, that there is some kind of spiritual allure. The truth is that there is a spiritual allure going on but it's very non-institutional-based and it's much more individualistic. It's actually I think more reflective of our consumer-oriented culture. In the 21st century as people are returning to some kind of faith, they are doing it not out of any kind of institutional loyalty and often they're not doing it because of what they grew up with. They're doing it because at some deep level they're seeking some kind of spirituality. The churches that can respond to that are growing. But a lot of our churches are still dying, unfortunately. The other thing that lends to growth in the Concord area is just the growth of Concord not so much in people but in younger families. The modus operendi for most liberal Protestants is they were active and involved through their teen years and they go away through college and when they married and have kids, they realize they want to expose their kids to some kind of faith tradition and that's what brings them back into the church. So the church that is there and able to serve the needs in particular for children and youth are growing as well.

You know "to whom much is given, much is expected", and so I think there's that kind of biblical mandate that we're called to be engaged with the world and to move beyond our own borders and to work with folks in areas that aren't so affluent. Although in eastern Massachusetts, those people are essentially invisible and forgotten. There was this great article on the front page of the Boston Globe the other day about these new mega SUVs that now have video monitors in the back of the front headrest so kids can watch videos. But I just thought what a silly article. It's a $60,000 car. How many people who read the Globe every day can actually afford this kind of luxury? But those are the people who are often very visible in society overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly wealthy, that's what sells newspapers. But, our job as Christians and as people of faith is to make visible those who are invisible and work on their behalf and work with them to make their lot in life better. If all that spirituality is about making us affluent people feel a little less guilty about how wealthy we are then it's not true spirituality. Then it's just like spiritual babysitting or a spiritual tranquilizer.

Jesus was a very demanding prophet. He clearly took the side of the poor. He clearly went out of his way to claim low income folks, marginalized folks, forgotten folks at being at the center of the kingdom, not on the margins. In the 21st century when we worship the stock market and when we drive around in our big SUVs, and when we tear down little houses and put up huge mansions, and when we think we're happy but we're really not happy, I think Jesus would, if he were around today, say you really need to wake up to what is really important and what really doesn't matter. Always Jesus was challenging the status quo. That's why he was killed. He challenged powerful people. So in my opinion that's what churches are supposed to do. We're just not supposed to be social clubs. We have plenty of social clubs here. We have the West Concord Women's Club and the garden club and that's not what churches and faith communities are supposed to be about.

I used a phrase "we shouldn't seek too comfortable a pew". It is very important though to recognize as well the pastoral side of the church. Rich and poor people all hurt inside, get depressed, they struggle with raising their kids, they worry about violence in schools, they have broken relationships and broken marriages and broken families, and so you can't ignore ministering to all the broken parts of folks when they come into the church. But neither can you be so pastoral that you leave behind challenging people to live up to their responsibilities. So it's a balancing act. Jesus loved to help people too. It's not like Jesus didn't think anybody was outside the circle. So that's important to remember too.

As to our outreach programs, right now the church provides money, volunteers, and office space to Concord Prison Outreach, which is probably one of the oldest prison ministry programs in the country. They have offices right here in the West Concord Union Church. We minister to the developmentally disabled adult community here in Concord through a long-time mission program called Send a Fellowship whereby every other Sunday night 20 to 30 developmentally disabled people come together for worship and fellowship and a meal. They also worship with us on Sunday morning. It is a very unique ministry. There are not a lot of churches who are doing that. These people all live in the area. There are two group homes in the area, one in Maynard and one is right around the corner from the church. We send volunteers into Rosie's Place, which is the largest women's shelter in Massachusetts located in Boston. We send volunteers to the Pine Street Inn. We work with Habitat for Humanity in Lowell, Lawrence and in north-central Massachusetts. This year we sent work groups to Honduras to work on public health projects, to South Carolina to work on housing projects, to New York City to work in soup kitchens. There is a lot of outreach. I'd really like it if we had a lot more, but we're doing okay.

On November 11 we're going to gather for a People of Faith Against Hate and that date was chosen because it was Kristallnacht under the Nazi regime. I started doing this in Rhode Island the year that Matthew Shephard, the young, gay college student, was murdered in Wyoming simply for the fact that he was gay. This gathering was a way of raising visibility of hate crimes in general. Kristallnacht was one night in 1938 whereby the Nazis went crazy in Germany and burnt down hundreds of synagogues. It was the first wave of anti-semitism and a foreshadow of what was going to happen in Germany. So what we try to do through the People of Faith Against Hate rally is to raise the visibility of people of faith, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, to be able to speak from their own faith traditions and to make it clear that hate is not a part of any legitmate faith system. It wasn't in the heart of Jesus; it's not in the heart of God and we need to publicly embrace those that have traditionally suffered because of who God creates them to be. That might be gays and lesbians, that might be Jews, that could be domestic violence folks, people of color. But it is the church publicly stepping out and saying this is a safe place, this is a sanctuary and hate has absolutely no place in the system of faith. This will be our second year.

I wasn't here at the time but the West Concord Union Church voted for affirmation for gays and lesbians to feel welcome here. A group of people in the church decided they wanted the church to go through a process of deciding whether or not they wanted to publicly vote on this issue as about 400 UCC churches across the country have already done. Over a year and half they studied the issue through many congregational meetings and many small group meetings and then decided to vote on becoming what is called "open and affirming". They had a successful vote two years ago last spring. Jim Keck was the minister then.

I've done four rides to raise money for AIDS. These are long distance bicycle rides that seek to raise funds to either help people with AIDS, work on AIDS prevention, or raise funds for basic research for an AIDs vaccine. I began it when I was in Rhode Island so I've done Boston to New York twice, Raleigh to Washington D.C. once, and then this past summer in June, I did the San Francisco to Los Angeles ride which was 535 miles.

Concord as a town is socially diverse, but I don't think it's ever been racially diverse. I don't think it's different from a lot of well off suburbs in eastern Massachusetts. There tends to be de facto racial segregation in eastern Massachusetts. It's been the truth in the Boston area for a long time. It's like New England's dirty little secret. We like to look at our southern brothers and sisters and point out how racist they are, but we could give anybody in other parts of the country a run for their money too. I say that as someone who grew up in that so I recognize that. With the housing market basically out of reach now, probably I would think to a majority of people who call Massachusetts home or at least in Concord, I don't think we'll ever see racial diversity here. Not unless programs like Metco are increased, and I know busing tends to be a dirty word, or unless we bring some kind of substantial affordable housing developments into town. I'm just going on the Affordable Housing Commission and I'm not quite sure whether that is a possibility or not. I think that is one of the biggest issues at least for the churches. Martin Luther King used to say that the hour from ten to eleven on Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour in the United States. It's very true. Think about racial diversity and diversity of all kinds. It's not about political correctness, it's about enjoying the gifts of other cultures, peoples and ideas. Birds of a feather flock together, but it's pretty boring after a while if the only people you're dealing with are people who look like you, act like you and think like you. It all becomes kind of white bread. Plus diversity isn't a mistake I think from the creation perspective. God intentionally created a diverse world. God could have created just one kind of people, one gender, one orientation, one race, and it would have made things a lot easier, but it also would have been real boring. I think the diversity of creation challenges us to work for diversity.

We deal with a wide range of social diversity within the church. The gift for an adult of going into New York City for the weekend and work in soup kitchens or just going to New York City as a Christian is you get immersed up to your eyeballs in diversity and you get to see all different kinds of people and experience all different kinds of ideas and ideals. You can't help but grow out of that experience. The young people go to South Carolina.

I chose a passage from scripture that I would like to read. It's from the Old Testament from the Book of Micah. Micah was a prophet at a time when Israel was very successful and had a huge temple and people were really good about going to temple and doing all the rituals. But at the same time the soul of the country was corrupt and widows and orphans and strangers were being ignored. So if you can picture a big beautiful temple with beggars on the front steps, and as people dressed in their finest garb went to temple, they stepped over the poor people who were on the steps in order to go and do what they thought was their job as people of faith. This is what Micah says to the country.

"With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:6-8

For me what that says is that Micah is reminding people of faith what the bottom line is in faith. That all the rituals in the world and all the beautiful churches and all the worship in the world means nothing to God unless that is connected to the way you live your life on a daily basis. And the way you're supposed to live that life is to do justice, to love kindness and to be merciful, and to walk humbly with God every day.

Hudson, Rev. John.
Text mounted 16th February 2008; Images mounted 13th October 2012. RCWH.