Interviewed July 5, 2001
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Concord's Faith Community
This October the Trinitarian Congregational Church will be celebrating a milestone anniversary of 175 years.
There are two primary reasons I went into the ministry. The first is that I grew up in a small community on the coast of Maine, Kennebunkport. In the years I grew up, in the late 1940s really right through college, it still had that small town flavor, and there were limited activities you were involved in, scouts and school and the other major one for me was the church. My parents were both very active there. I think just the consistent influence and more subtle than blatant Christian messages from week to week to week just was sort of a part of my life, and so I think in many respects my faith was always there from my earliest days. It sort of grew into my being and in the ‘60s and ‘70s when we were having a lot of strife in this country, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, I think those challenges at that time in my life forced me to make explicit what was implicit in my life. So the question for me was given what was happening in our country, how could I bring my faith, which I'd always held close to me perhaps never talked a lot about, did a lot with except faithfully attend church, and those kinds of things, I needed to bring that to bear in my larger life. So that was really the critical and catalyzing reason.
I was born in 1947. During the 1950s church was part of the fabric of community life. Much more so then I think than now in terms of the fact that probably the vast majority of the people, and certainly in the community I lived in, attended church. I think there were probably a lot more people affiliated with churches, attending churches, and not necessarily people that were of any deeper faith than people that attend church today. I think the numbers were larger, and there may have been social reasons as to why that was the case. If you served a company or worked in a certain profession, it was probably much to your benefit to have service to the church as a part of your community life. I think that was one of the dynamics. Lots of people were attending churches in the ‘50s. It was part of the culture then, and we have obviously had a cultural shift. I think it would tend in more cases than not to be unusual if you were not at that time participating in some religious community whatever faith it happened to be.
I do think that certainly the mid to late ‘60s into the early ‘70s were a critical point for lots of institutions in our country, and the church was among those institutions which began to be questioned, in serious ways. At that point we started seeing probably the marginalization of the church begin to happen. Certainly the professionals were involved with that. No longer was the church viewed and valued in quite the central role it historically played. And likewise the clergy. At one point the clergy were the learned people in the society. I think with the discrediting of the church to some degree plus so many more people getting higher levels of education and expertise in different areas of life, the clergy then became one of many sort of learned folk in the community.
The Vietnam War personally influenced me. I was at draft age at the time of the Vietnam War. If the issue in my life had been to avoid the draft which it wasn't, but if it had been, I could have been exempted by attending divinity school. That was not the driving issue for me. The driving issue was what did my faith have to say about what was going on in our society and our larger world. It was clear to me based on my training, background and upbringing that I felt called to make a positive and constructive contribution to this rather unfortunate time in our history rather than be conscripted into a role where I would be put very possibly in the position of taking another human's life. I just felt that was counter to anything I was taught. So I basically became a conscientious objector. My number was drawn and I served two years civilian duty, if you will, for the time that I was called for. So for me it was really a matter of conscience.
One of the real challenges that all draft boards had was because they had numbers of people who were either high for CO status or receiving it, they really were not very well equipped to sort of assign you to positions. You, for the most part, had to go out and see what you could get. So I really went to look at a hospital position and a school position. I thought I would do two things at the same time. The school position found a place immediately, but the hospital position did not. The draft board accepted the school position, which was basically working for a dean's office in the residential life area at a college in Maine. So for two years I served with the Dean of Students at this small liberal arts college. Again primarily working with the students. Curiously enough there were some opportunities to do draft counseling in terms of again not necessarily sending people in just one particular direction but really laying out the options, many of which were new to some of the people that we were dealing with.
In my home town of Kennebunkport I had the opportunity to speak against the war from the pulpit whereas many others of my age didn't have that opportunity. I think one of the big differences was that while I was probably as much against the war and what was going on as a lot of peers, they had chosen what you and I would probably characterize as a more radical route for making their protests. I could articulate some of the same things they did in different ways and in these kinds of settings that I think people would hear in a different way what people of my generation were feeling about the war. Partly it was they were more comfortable with me in the more traditional kind of way I looked and appeared and acted than some of my friends who were known as hippies and flower children and those sorts of folks who were really anti-establishment and came across that way. I tried to suggest well I had big concerns for the establishment, maybe I wasn't anti-establishment, but I had big concerns and these were my concerns. So I could say a lot of the same things and have them accepted because I as a person was accepted by the community of people I spoke to.
It turned out to be a problem over the years in applying for church positions. There were a number of instances where I was actually denied being considered by a search committee for a certain pastorage based solely on the fact that I had been a conscientious objector. Part of the process when you are a member of the clergy is that when you interview, most of these committees are interested in part, and the good part, as to your spiritual journey. Because of the way I came into the ministry on the catalytic events of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, I had no way to avoid talking about it. I had to talk about it to be authentic about my calling. So in the course of that depending on the composition of the search committee, that could spell some trouble in terms of employment. That always bothered me because I felt that if there were an effort to have an authentic witness to one's faith, it was doing something that was totally legal. A draft board had said we believe what you are telling us, we respect you as a person of integrity and faith, and therefore you are exempted from one kind of service but we will call you to do two years of alternative service. I always thought being a conscientious objector was really whether your faith in your life can make a statement in the larger world that there are some things your faith did not want you to do. I found it ironical that Christian churches would actually deny me the opportunity to stand as a candidate because I believed in Jesus Christ who we often refer to as the Prince of Peace. He came to this world to help us live in peaceful ways rather than thrive on animosity and hatred and violence. So it was a very, very strange and ironical experience.
The United Church of Christ historically has tended to be on the more liberal spectrum in theological values, views and opinions, and I would say probably for the most part have espoused and articulated what we would characterize as liberal points of view. It would not be unusual that they as a denomination would come out against the war, for example. But we need to recognize in a denomination that sometimes there is a big gap between where the national church is, which is probably true in the UCC as it tends to be fairly liberal, as opposed to the local community. My experience generally speaking is that local communities tend to be more conservative than the national churches and that's where the calling of the pastors happens to be done, in the local community. Again depending on the mix of people, these are common everyday folk that serve to represent the various aspects of the churches and depending upon that composition, it could either be favored by moving forward in the process or they can stop you cold in your tracks.
Pastors in the United Church of Christ value education, and they are trained at a certain level to be interpreters of the scripture, faith, theology, so we come with this training. But, the reality of life is that each person in the parish or the church has their own conscience which they bring to bear on all issues of faith and practice. If they choose to disagree with the pastor, that is certainly their right and their privilege. Sometimes there are wonderful debates, discussions, conversations that ensue from that so it adds, I think, to all of us in terms of the dialogue keeping our faith vital, alive and zesty. It's also frustrating at times. At the end of the day I appreciate the fact that responsibility resides in the individual to figure out how his or her faith speaks to the issues.
Prior to coming to Concord, I served two parishes. My very first parish in 1976 was in Torrington, Connecticut. It's a sleepy industrial city on the Naugatuck River valley in the northwest part of Connecticut. Torrington like many communities in that river valley had suffered economic setbacks as a lot of industry had left. It was in some respects a struggling area, a lot of working class people, sort of nestled in what was more affluent area surrounding it, the Litchfield-Morris area which was a favorite retreat area of more means. It was a great place for us to be. My wife and I were newly married. She fortunately got a teaching job and I had this as my first parish. It was an unusual first parish because it was a parish in that when I met with the search committee there were two churches, and they were in the process of becoming one. They were a yoked parish; they were merging together. One was a French Huguenot church and one was New England sort of agrarian-based church, a lot of farmers went to it. So they decided to become one church. In the process they had made an agreement that they would build a new meeting house. One of the two churches had burned in a tragic fire, and they wanted to rebuild a new, larger structure on that spot. I was at that parish for four years. They were wonderful people, hard-working, very dedicated to the church. The church had sort of a family feel to it. It was a small church, a little over 200 members. They were people who really believed in their mission, hard-working to make this new building a reality, and to bring these French-speaking and English-speaking congregations into one unit. It really was an exciting adventure.
I came to Concord via Portsmouth. From Torrington I went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where I was 13 years. My wife and I are New Englanders, and we had a desire to stay in New England. Also we were brought up on the seacoast and when the opportunity in Portsmouth opened for us, it was one of those things we felt was too good to be true. So we were invited to serve there. We knew Portsmouth, loved the seacoast, a great community, a wonderful area, a lot of diversity, things to do, sense of excitement, arts, culture -- a very different community from Torrington. But we were ready for that. We had been married four years, we had sort of figured out who we were and what our life together would be, so now we were ready to move. So I went to Portsmouth and had a very successful ministry there. My wife was a teacher there, and our two children were born there.
Probably about 12 years into my service there, my wife and I were beginning to think if we were to get our children into middle school and high school with a good education and off to college as well as prepare for our retirement, we really needed to look for another location. North Church had been good to us but like any situation, there are limits. So we started looking around. By the grace of God the church in Concord received my profile or resume, and I felt blessed they took time to interview me and come hear me and invite me to come and be pastor. I came in 1993, and it has been an exciting eight years. Again we're committed to staying in New England. We love it here, our families are here. Our children are getting a wonderful education on top of it. As I look at the three congregations I've served, each one of them is very different, and that was part of the appeal of Concord. As I explained my first church was agrarian, blue-collar, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people. Portsmouth was much more a mixed congregation, socio-economically and very involved as a community center, by the virtue of its location. Coming to Concord was a very different experience because it is a suburban church in an affluent community, a lot of people who are extremely sophisticated, achievement-oriented, hard-working, and it just provided a new set of challenges and opportunities which had some appeal. So I'm glad at this point in my career to have had three very different opportunities to serve.
Our congregation in Concord is probably in some respects typical of many suburban communities in the Boston area. Interestingly enough, if you look back historically Trinitarian Congregational Church was known as the farmer's church. Each church in the community apparently had a designation depending upon the make up of the congregation. So many farmers worshipped at Trinitarian Congregational Church. Obviously, the community has evolved over these past three or four decades to the point where the farmers are very much in the minority. Certainly, it is not the major income producer in this area. And there have been a lot more professional business people who you might expect to move into this area and bring with them their values, their interests, their concerns whether it is about their work, their achievement, or good educations for their children, or safe neighborhoods, all kinds of issues that are important to middle or upper-class suburbanites. So I think the nature of the church has changed to some degree.
We continue to have a mix of natives. Probably at this point in time, the natives who are members of our church are about 25% and 75% are more newer people. When I say newer, that might mean they might have been here 20 years even, but relatively they are newer people. They've come from many different places geographically and many different places theologically. Even though we are a Congregational Church by history, traditional, and organization, many of the members coming into the life of our church come from different religious background, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist. Through marriage in particular we often get a lot of Catholics. I think again of the question of a Protestant-Catholic couple looking for some common ground, the Congregational Church happens to be one of those places. So I think theologically we have quite a diverse group of people. Ethnically, it is probably very homogeneous as is the character of Concord. I think age wise we have a real nice mix. Anyone coming to our church on a Sunday morning would find certainly some numbers of grandmothers and great-grandmothers but lots of moms of families, lot of kids, a nice spread of married and single people. I sort of look at our church in terms of like a family, having all the generations represented in a somewhat balanced kind of way. We don't seem to be skewed one way or another. My previous church in Portsmouth consisted of a lot of older people. My first church in Connecticut was a lot of people in the mid-range. Here we have a real mix age wise. We have a little over 700 members on our list and those are active, committed people. Obviously there are other people who are connected with the church that are not on that list. Then there are others that are inactive. Then we have a lot of families for whom we may have one member and maybe their children but the other spouse may be a different faith or a different church and they may participate in various parts of the church's life. So numbers are very tricky. But as far as solid confirmed members, a little over 700 is probably accurate.
There is a severe problem in attracting people to the ministry today. Current statistics suggest that in our denomination there are a little over 200 clergy that are under the age of 35. There are a lot of people going into the ministry mid-career so we do have a large increase in women and second career people, but there is still the big problem of younger people. Nationally there are only something like 2000 ministers in all denominations under the age of 35. So I think we have a problem, and the problem boils down to this. There is a statistic out there somewhere that says the age of a congregation is usually within ten years of the age of the minister one way or the other. So you can rapidly conclude that if we don't have younger people coming in, the congregations age, and what does this ultimately mean in terms of the future of Christian churches?
A lot more women are entering the ministry. I think there are probably a couple of major factors with respect to that. First of all, the whole feminist movement to begin with, I think, opens up lots of opportunities to women across the board in all areas of life, particularly the ministry. There are still problems in the Catholic Church because of the patriarchal arrangement in that church, but certainly in our church which has a history and early history of ordaining women. We have a lot more women, and if you were to go to one of our related seminaries, probably at least 50% of the students are women. They are very capable women, extremely capable, gifted women who probably historically in another period of time would not have had the same chance. They wouldn't have been given the same hearing and benefit by search committees that they are now. I think certainly a lot of the young women I know that are in ministry have really pioneered the course so that others coming after them will be much more readily accepted. It's like any profession, those that are trailblazers, if they themselves do a good job, it's much easier for everyone that comes after. If in certain churches, that first female pastor for whatever reason doesn't succeed, then I'm afraid it poses a dilemma in terms of those who seek to follow. I would say that in the United Church of Christ we're doing far better in the placement of women and tapping their gifts.
Antoinette Brown was the first woman minister. I don't know a lot about her but our denomination every two years at our General Synod awards the Antoinette Brown award to women who have distinguished themselves in ministry. It's named after this woman who I believe was the first woman ever ordained. I believe she was ordained in the 1830s. The Congregational Church as a denomination takes a great deal of pride in being able to lift that up. Again I don't mean to suggest in all this that we've sort of made it and that it's easy. I think there is still some problems in getting women accepted fully into some areas of the life of the church, but I do think we have come a significant distance and much to the benefit of the churches that are served and the gifted people that serve them.
We have had in more recent history one of the first, and I don't know if it is the very first, but one of the first gay ministers serving the church. Of course, that is a highly emotional issue in this time in most denominations. There are huge church splits over the whole issues of ordination of gay and lesbian ministers. There was a classmate of mine at Yale Divinity School who is probably if not the first, pretty close to the first gay minister in any Protestant church. He currently serves our denomination. So I think the United Church of Christ has led the way in that regard even though it is very hard still at this time for gays and lesbians to get ordained. Some associations won't do it and others will, and then to find a job once you are ordained is very, very difficult.
I feel our church here in Concord is very welcoming to gay people. In the case of our particular church, we are in the midst of a process and will be doing that more fully in the upcoming year to intentionally welcome in people who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender. Again this is very hard work because it is a highly emotional issue in churches. We are not quite at the same place with some other churches who may have gone through the process of gays and lesbians. But we hope by going through the process and coming up with a statement that we will be viewed increasingly by the community as a place that is not only open but very safe. Our mission has been very intentional about suggesting the notion that we want anyone coming into our midst to find a safe place where they can be who they need to be before God. We are not probably there in the fullness we would like to be because everyone is different in the Congregational Church, but I think we are moving in that direction. We have more work to do and I think at the end of the day, we will get to that point, after more hard work.
The West Concord Union Church voted to affirm publicly to accept gays and lesbians. They went through a process that we in the United Church of Christ call, open and affirming. For those that know that language, if you move from community to community, that is clearly recognizable as a church that welcomes gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender people. Whether or not we will claim that title still remains to be seen. The good news is that title does communicate a certain message. The other piece of the news is that we might like to come up with a different way of expressing it. Our goal would be to embrace not only gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people which is a very significant population that we need to, but hopefully people from other different types of discriminated places. We want people to feel this is a safe place for them to come to, not only being welcomed but embraced and cared about, and have an opportunity to serve fully. Certainly from my perspective, theologically speaking, the only criteria for becoming part of a church is to be baptized. And as far as I am concerned, there are no other criteria to exclude anyone from the church. If you are baptized and make an affirmation of faith, that is all you need to be a member of the Christian church. Other characteristics and criteria are immaterial.
My biggest challenge is probably addressing the spiritual self among the affluence in a town like this. I deal with it in my own home. I have two teenage daughters. It's not just an intellectual issue out there. It's a very practical issue for us. We have come from places, which were not poor places, but have not had the level of abundance that we have experienced here, so it's a challenge for us as a family as well as the church. Certainly for those of us who are charged with the spiritual leadership of churches, I think there are numbers of things we can do. One is obviously that we have to be faithful to the message that we're charged with. And that message has to do with number one, honoring the poor and figuring out ways that we can extend ourselves to help them, and number two, recognize that even in scripture, wealth is not a sin, but the love of wealth is the sin. We need to remind ourselves that just because there may be a lot of affluence doesn't mean we are bad people or that we're unusually sinful. But it does get our attention to the fact that we have a responsibility for sharing that wealth. Thirdly, I think it is incumbent upon us as spiritual leaders to make sure that we provide opportunities for people to develop the spirit. There are endless opportunities for people to develop their gifts, talents, and abilities to work and achieve success, but a lot of that still leaves people empty. We can always be there with an opportunity to help them develop their spirituality. We can nurture relationships. People hunger for relationships. For many people who are cut off, isolated, they're busy in their own worlds and not connected with larger issues and larger relationships, we can nurture relationships in the church.
I certainly think at the end of day we as clergy have a responsibility to be an example. Admittedly none of us, certainly as Protestants, ever took a vow of poverty. I have one girl in college and another one going to college and I'm going to have to retire. But I think part of my good stewardship is trying to take care of these children so that other people don't have to take care of them. Or I worry about my retirement so the government or somebody else doesn't have to do that. But also I don't need to live ostentatiously. My values I think I've expressed are in my faith and everything is clear to the people we know and the people I serve, that my faith gives me value and it's not the amount of money that I have, or don't have for that fact. So personal witness, personal example whether it is the way we live our life or the causes we support, all of it goes to the same end. But admittedly I think it is a huge challenge.
Our church is blessed with an extremely strong mission orientation. I've always felt that strong churches are clearly identified by the size of their outreach. I don't mean that just in terms of dollars. We give substantial dollars on an annual basis, literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, but checkbook mission does not really satisfy the soul in the deep way it ought to. So in addition to being very generous with lots of organizations, we have programs such as providing a meal once a month to a men's shelter in Dorchester. Over 50 men are served by a team of people. We have a lot of people involved in our Christian ministry reaching out right here in Concord with the prisoners. Our youth group takes an annual trip somewhere either in the United States or close by in Mexico or in the Caribbean islands. More often than not they rehab houses, schools, painting, repairing things. This mission trip is probably one of the most critical things we do for these young people. They see a part of the world that they've never seen and in conditions that most of them can't even imagine. It's a real transformative experience for these kids. We do a lot of things around different holiday periods, such as prison shoeboxes, white gifts or nativity gifts that go into the inner city of Boston.
We have two missionaries that we have commissioned from our church and currently they're serving in South Africa. This December they will have completed a two-year term. As part of that, last December our church raised in the Christmas offering, $17,500, which translates into 137,000 rand. The people in South Africa who are using this are connected with an AIDS center. They have purchased a trailer which will allow them to take the beadwork that AIDS patients have made and go out throughout the country and sell this to different places. All the money goes to help the AIDS patients and their families. I just received a video three or four days ago where they showed the launching of this new trailer. It was a very exciting event. We can go on and on. We go to Common Cathedral in Boston. Our confirmation kids are invariably involved with that. We have every year what is called a heifer fair, which is held in June when all the church school kids put on a kind of fair where people pay money for different events or food, and all that money goes to support the Heifer Project. We have an Easter offering which again may serve to help people in a disaster area. We have had an antique show in November for over 25 years and 100% of the proceeds, well we do take out the rental of the building and advertising, but outside of that, all goes toward mission. On an annual basis we may raise $12,000 to $15,000 on that one weekend event that goes all to outreach. And, lots of our people, a slew of people are involved to help set this up, serve meals, help the vendors. It's a wonderful community event for our church people as well as a great contribution to mission.
Our goal in the long run, and this is part of our strategic plan, is that we have more hands-on activity for people. People are very time stressed in this community, but one of the ways that they deepen their faith and understand their faith is that they have something concrete to do. So over time we hope to expand the number of hands-on opportunities for our adults who can get involved concretely. We send volunteers to Gaining Ground. That's one way. In fact whole families have done that. And we have one adult who has a very impressive ministry. It is a prison ministry by a man who lost a daughter. His daughter was murdered. And rather than become bitter about all this, he actually started his own ministry and started in the prison meeting with the person who killed his daughter. Talk about faith in action and how you turn from bitterness or the sole concern of victim's rights to figuring out what your faith is saying.
Mission is really important and I think for a church of our affluence, it's right. If I could have an ideal world, I'd have us at 50% given to our mission work.
I was ordained 25 years ago. It's quite a passage that I hit recently. The old time flies clichÃ© comes home to roast. It's remarkable to think 25 years have gone by so quickly. I feel that I've been unusually blessed because my experiences have been wonderfully rich. Each parish has had its set of challenges and opportunities, and the variety of that I think has fed into this richness. I've constantly been challenged. I've had a chance to go back to school. I've enjoyed each of my parishes for different reasons. My first parish, I think of all those people that were of a hard-working nature and I loved it for that part of it. The second parish, I loved the community in which we lived. It was a far reaching community ministry that we enjoyed. The third parish I'm in now, there are just unexcelled opportunities including the completing of my education, my doctorate degree which was completed here. People in my current church are genuinely excited and enthused about what the church is, can be, and hope to do, and they want to be a part of this. It's not made up of hundreds of passive people. They are committed people, all of whom will take a small part of the work. It's not a few people doing everything. It's a lot of people taking a small part and that is really, really exciting.
To mark our 175th anniversary I think we're going to do two things. We're going to take a year's time. Starting the second week of September with our kick-off and our actual big anniversary weekend is October 13 & 14, we're going to mark the anniversary dates in terms of those events. But we're going to spend the whole year doing different kinds of things, historical presentations, meals, forums, some dramatic presentations, a variety of things. But I think our focus is going to be number one, yes celebrating our history, but looking forward. Our theme for this year is "Founded in Christ, Forward in Faith". The Founded in Christ refers specifically to the fact that we came into existence because a small group of people that disagreed with the then First Parish, which became the Unitarian Church. It disagreed about the placement of Jesus in the trinity. This group of people wanted to maintain the divinity of Jesus and the Unitarians did not want to, and so they came across the river and the rest is history. So Founded in Christ will speak to our history, and Forward in Faith will speak to the fact that we're just completing a $3 million renovation to our church facility. We have a lot of new initiatives this year, exciting programs that I think look optimistically to the future. It's both a backward glance and a forward thrust.
The relationship with the West Concord Union Church in my experience has been that we do some joint projects together. Every summer we have four union services, two at West Concord and two at our church. We have some other shared events such as Good Friday, we take turns at one church or the other. Certainly denominationally we are both rooted in the United Church of Christ. The two churches by virtue in part of location and size, probably have different cultures, different ways of living out their lives and expressing the faith. Although theologically there are probably lots and lots of things that are very common between the two churches and among the membership, again I think it has more to do with what I would call culture of the church, the way you conduct business, and the way you carry out programs. It's a question of geography, of culture, of size and architecture to some extent.
At the conclusion of this I thought I would share a quotation from the prophet Micah. I have just celebrated my 25th anniversary, and I met with a composer who is writing a hymn for this occasion and she asked me about my favorite scriptures. I have a number of them but as I thought about them, at the end of the day, I felt there was one scripture that certainly applies to all of us who are part of any kind of faith community and what our responsibilities are. This is the quote which comes from Micah, Chapter 6 Verse 4. "He has showed you old man what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." My personal feeling is that no matter who we are we are indeed people of faith, but at the end of the day those are the three requirements that any person is called upon to respond to, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.