Rev. Gary Smith
Minister, First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church
Wright Tavern Church Office

Interviewed August 22, 2001

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Concord's Faith Community

Rev. Gary Smith.I always wanted to be a minister. I was in high school at the time of the Vietnam War, and I was very active in the youth group in the United Church of Christ. I had a chance to watch the minister of that church lead us in some pretty tough discussions, and I think that began to creep into the back of my mind that this might be something. I think we should follow people we admire. So when I got to college the Protestant chaplain at the University of Maine had a big influence on me as well, and I began to see myself doing the work he was doing.

I grew up in the Congregational Church in Waterville, Maine. I remember the minister there when he would lead worship, sitting there with my parents, and most of us believed this most of the time when it came time to read the Kansas City Statement of Faith. You began to see some of this liberalism come into the worship. I was ordained in the United Church of Christ but it was possible for me to become a Unitarian. It was home for me.

Here in Concord, the Trinitarian Congregationalists split away from the Universalists in 1825. My colleague, John Lombard who is pastor at Trinitarian, and I often have a good time talking about this because I tell him when the two churches split, we got the silver and he says, yes, but we got the faith. It really was not a contentious split. It had to do with the appointment of a professor at the divinity school at Harvard, but it was something that had festered for longer than that. It really came down to this heresy of the Unitarians that Jesus was a great teacher but was not a God, and three persons. So it was theological squabbling rather than anything that was hurtful. The Trinitarian Congregationalists in their vestibule list the first ten ministers that we share in common, but over the years, it has always been a warm relationship between the two churches.

I mentioned I grew up in Maine and my mother's family were all Universalists. That was a very large church in Maine at the turn of the century, and even earlier than that. It was mostly away from the seacoast so that when you see the First Parish name, it generally tends to be if its near the coast, they became Unitarian. I think that had to do with educational level. If it's away from the coast, they were Universalists or Congregational, but there are a lot of First Parishes in New England.

I know in Mansfield, Massachusetts there's an Orthodox Congregational Church and here in Concord, there's a Trinitarian Congregational Church. These churches are not named by accident. They were trying to separate themselves from the church from which they had split so that people would be very clear where they stood theologically.

Concord is a very different community from Waterville, Maine. I often have to just pinch myself. I say to parishioners here, this is just such a town of enormous privilege and at times it feels like a theme park to me. My roots are blue collar and I think there are people in this town whose roots are blue collar. But it's easy to lose sight of it. I can remember when we moved here to Concord in 1988 and I returned home to visit my mother in Waterville and I went to see a friend. We had only been out of Maine a short time, and I really had forgotten. It is very easy to get into this kind of perfect little town. But I feel enormously privileged to be here. I think our members try to accept what it means to be privileged, and to figure out how we return that to the world.

I went to a large church conference two or three years ago and the question was, what is the DNA of your church? What are the building blocks that have made it? It was very clear to our delegation that the DNA of our church is its history and the shoulders we stand on. This is now our 366th year as a congregation, so the kinds of things we talk about now I'm sure they talked about generation after generation. It's an enormous legacy, and it's one we claim. I know within the Unitarian Church we have so many visitors that come to us from other Unitarian Churches. Youth groups come here as kind of a pilgrimage to see one of the oldest Unitarian Churches. The church coincides with the founding of the town. It is said the last vestige of this town and church relationship is the clock on our tower. That was the official town clock which it still is, and the town pays to have it lit at night.

I was reading a book this summer about how in New England towns that clock has disappeared and it's now the bank clock that flashes the numbers that becomes the town clock. Apparently this tavern was built in the 1740s, so just think of this room we're sitting in. What an amazing place to sit in a national historic site.

Harvard College met in our meeting house when they had to evacuate Cambridge. We are marking this September 2001 the 100th anniversary of the building we have. The building burned in 1900 and was dedicated in early October of 1901 so we're going to do a one hundredth year celebration. We have all the original programs of the day. We're going to try to repeat some of the music that was sung that morning and read the same scripture lesson that was read that day.

The Universalist belief is that Jesus is not divine but a prophet. Jesus is seen within the church in the context of a teacher. The Unitarian's argument is for what they called a pure Christianity. They felt that the church over the centuries had moved away from the religion Jesus had taught which was an ethic of behavior and not a religion about him. So to go back to the faith of Jesus, not about Jesus. A very controversial thing to say so that there are probably people within my congregation who claim the title Christian and there are those who do not. We are not an orthodox Christian congregation in that we do not accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. He's a teacher along with Buddha, seeking for scripture in many different places in addition to the Bible.

From the time of some of the early church councils, there were certainly divisions over whether Jesus was human or divine. There were early church people who were expressing a Unitarian belief, but that disappeared and reemerged in the reformation of Europe. So it was a separate Unitarian movement on the continent, in England and in America. But some of our earliest roots go back to Transylvania which is now the country of Romania where there are whole Unitarian villages. Our church here in Concord has a partner relationship with a church there. Next summer we expect about 50 people making up an extended choir to go and visit them for about 10 days or two weeks and build on that relationship. In America it was Joseph Priestly, the person who discovered oxygen, who was one of the early Unitarians in Philadelphia and it certainly became strong here in New England.

The members are encouraged to participate civicly. Just to say a bit more about Unitarianism in light of that since we are not a creedal church which means we do not have a set statement of belief that everyone must say I believe that. We are more of a convenantal congregation meaning that we agree to be under one tent and to live with each other and the questions we have. Unitarians are not so much concerned with personal salvation as they are with what they the beloved community, how can we make heaven on earth, how we can do this. So that at the time of the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, this church in Concord as well as other churches really had a tough time because good people disagreed. Yes, this church did grow and then it lost a lot of members because of hard feelings. One of the things that I have learned over the years in my ministry is that the pendulum so often swings between run into a social cause but not putting the faith under it, or being so self-absorbed with trying to go deeper spiritually and forget that there is a world out there that needs attention. So my ministry here is trying to find a balance between those two things. If there are disagreements, people have deepened in their faith and they stay.

Sometimes I do feel I'm walking in the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his grandfather William Emerson. I take a lot of this transcendental town into my own. I came here with those beliefs, the transcendental belief that the holy is found in nature and the holy is found between the two of us as we talk, that it's ephemeral. When you read the story of William Emerson at the time of the revolution, an old man who was so taken with the cause of the patriots that he resigned from his ministry to serve as a chaplain for them nearly giving his life to that. You look back at some of the ministers who have served this congregation and many of them have been giants. Dana Greeley who came just before me and I think was part of the oral history project as well years ago. He certainly has left a wonderful legacy of service and looking at peace and justice. I think it has become a part of this place because it's taken for granted that of course this church will serve the wider world. We don't get a lot of argument over reaching out. The Greeley Foundation stands for that and continues to thrive, particularly with grants into the inner city of Boston in issues with peace and justice.

The way I met Dana originally is that one of his daughters was a member of my church in Maine, so I met Dana and Debbie Greeley first as parents. Then when I went to work for our headquarters in Boston in fundraising and public relations, I came out to Concord to interview him because he had such a treasure of information about people and stories. So I'd ride the train out here and just come and talk to him.

Our membership is now about 800 adults and about 450 children. Of that 450 children there are 125 currently in high school which is just amazing. The programs can still be so big. Working with young people is an important aspect. Our teenagers for the first time, and I know other congregations in Concord have done this and we have modeled our program and aspired to be like them, are going out on a service project over one of the school vacations. We're really trying to meet with these kids who have an enormous amount of pressure upon them from their parents and their peers and their schools so we're trying to do some meaningful coming of age program, sexuality education, learning about other faiths. We're really trying to stay with these kids through their high school years.

Several years ago there was an explosion about the sexuality education. It passed, but it caused some controversy. We own responsibility for it and that was a failure on our part to communicate as clearly with parents as we should have and doing far more parent education. But the program emerged stronger than ever. The issue was not whether we would teach our children about sexuality, it was trying to do a more effective orientation and bringing the parents into that. So we're very proud of that program, but it was not a fun time.

There is so much idealism among young people. You look at the high school and the expectations of the community service there and the number of kids that surpass those hours by multiples of five and ten, you know it is trying to hold out to our young people a sense of what they have been given and what they can return and empowering them to realize they can be agents for change and trying to include them in some of the basic discussions about what the mission of this church is. I think a lot of it is parent education. We push our kids so hard. The percentage of kids in this town who go for early admission and the competition for schools and I know a lot of it is parents trying to relive their own adolescence and want their children to do better. I think it is just looking at what are the values we have. Someone asked me the other day in terms of measurement, we're doing some strategic planning as every organization does long range planning, and saying well, how will we know if we succeeded at that? I said that is not numbers. You can begin doing that anecdotally. How many people are in the building on Sunday morning? What's the activity like here during the week? What are the stories people tell about how they apply their faith in their everyday life? To me that's the way. And I think that's the way for young people too. I had an e-mail this morning from a young man who has just gone to college and he said me an e-mail that he just got there yesterday, that's the kind of relationship I just treasure. He's going to remember his minister in his first couple of days at school. That's pretty humbling.

The convenantal issue that I spoke of earlier that when people say they want to join is there's no faith test there. What we do is bring out the handwritten ledger book, these are available in the public library except for the current one for people to look over. It's a record of all the births, the deaths, the child dedications, the marriages, and people joining. We say because it goes back right from the very beginning, we have the original eleven men who signed the book, to say your word is your deed. If you're willing to sign your name, who are we to judge that. If you have understanding that you are in common cause with us, that's all that's needed, we welcome you. This is part of your journey. Will you walk with us for this time? And that's it. That's the covenant.

The church in Acton united with the church in Stow and it's located in Stow. We have about 150 families from Acton and some families from Lincoln. It's very interesting in New England that this concept of parish, one of an area, is still pretty much respected. It would be very unusual for people to come from Bedford or Sudbury or Wayland. Even though they are close, they have their own parish there. It's a New England thing. I've talked to colleagues from other places in the country and people travel immense distances to go to the church of their choice. But in New England this is the parish.

When I first arrived the First Parish was home to the Concord area Jewish group. That was started when Dana Greeley was here. That has always been a wonderful relationship. I think for the first three or four years of my being here, they did meet here for the high holy days and their classes for children were held on Monday afternoon. But then they built their new synagogue. It was quite a day because we were together in worship. It started here and then the congregation marched with their congregation to klezmer music right down Main Street and Elm Street and helped them dedicate the new building. Michael Luckens, the rabbi there has been there longer than I have been here. The relationship has meant the world to us.

A lot of things take place from here town wide such as the Walk for Hunger, Open Table and the food pantry. The puritans did not want to use the word sanctuary. They chose the word meetinghouse and that's what we call this building. The main church building is the meetinghouse. We can make it available to non-profit groups so a lot of town activities take place there either in the sanctuary or in the parish hall downstairs. It's still the meetinghouse in the small New England town. It's a role we're extremely proud to play.

The fourth grade classes in the Concord schools come to the meetinghouse to learn about town meeting. The curriculum is undergoing changes because of the ridiculous MCAS tests, but they come and reenact a meeting that would have taken place in the 1700s. They dress up for the occasion and play all the roles. I always go and watch.

We have the Clergy Laity Group, and this has been a group that frankly emerged at the time of the Vietnam War to include laity. I think before that it was primarily the clergy group but it became a clergy laity group so that more communication could take place among all of us. It serves now as an information exchange. We might have the superintendent of schools come and talk about some initiatives being taken, or the chief of police. It's just to try to keep the bridges alive among all of us. So there are always delegations from each of the faith communities there.

Our Associate Minister Johnny Rankin is involved in the City Year Project. Johnny has been here for four years, really called to our congregation to carry the two portfolios of pastoral case and social justice but really has organized these in the last several years to send as many people as possible into the city. In the past few years beginning to incorporate the synagogue, the West Concord Congregational Church and trying to make it an interfaith effort here so that the many school buses that are here on that Saturday morning is just a wonderful testament of how we can work together. City Year is an ongoing program, but it has its focus on a particular day during the year for people who are in the suburbs to really pay attention to the relationship with the city. These boundaries between suburbs and city are just lines on a map, and our heart needs to be with them. This is a way of doing this and these are volunteer projects. Last year the project was doing some painting in one of the elementary schools in Boston, or raking, letting residents know that we know they are there, and wish to pay attention to them. I should say we have a new project going right now. When I mentioned earlier the two intentions between trying to deepen the faith and to go out into world and always holding those intentions, we're sitting right in the Wright Tavern Center which is a spiritual renewal and which is an effort to try to bring to this town into our membership opportunities to learn spiritual discipline and learning the history of religion and learning what is the sacred text.

We're about to launch something called the Jericho Road Project which is trying to do something really kind of outside of a normal church way of looking at social justice, trying to address some of the underlying causes. The Jericho Road Project came from a sermon that Martin Luther King preached in the last week of his life when he was preaching the parables of the Good Samaritan and along the road to Jericho. He said churches need to get over this understanding that all you have to do is to through some coins at the beggar, but that's not it. We have to address why are there beggars at all? We're going to try to do this through a project looking at what are some of the underlying causes particularly of childhood poverty. Why are there 50,000 children that live below the poverty level? And could a congregation like this do something?

The jobs of people who are part of this congregation, their financial resources, their access to foundations, the network, there's no reason we couldn't mobilize to make an impact. So that's something that will be happening in 2001 in the church itself.

The Spiritual Center here is interdenominational. It arises out of some of our own programs, but we distribute our calendar widely throughout all the faith communities in Concord and in other towns. Our programs are open to any. This is an effort to come together and have forums and discussions, so we draw a lot of the town as well. The Spiritual Center began about three years ago. It was a pilot project so you could see it beginning this year. We had several families that were generous enough to fund it when we began, to hire a director, and to begin to offer the kinds of programs. I think the way people normally look at a faith community and in our case a church, is we need people to serve on committees, we need people to do this or that, and I think you burn a lot of people out. Fundamentally, what we are trying to do here is to say, here let's just turn that all upside down and say, how can this safe community serve you in your work that you do and in your marriage and family and parenting? What do you need a church for? What could we do here that would strengthen you spiritually so you can go about the work you do? That's a different way of looking at it. We began to look at all our programs that way. This Wright Tavern Center was the first initiative of doing that. What are the kinds of thing you need? So a lot of our courses that are extremely popular are around ethics. How do I put with what I believe this particular question that might come up in my business? I have to lay off people, downsize, these kinds of things. How do I apply who I am to those kinds of things, to those kinds of tough decisions that I have to make?

One of our classes that's really popular is spiritual autobiography. People want to tell their story, their odyssey of what their faith has been through the years, where they've had mountains and valleys in terms of their strength. This is a writing class, and the writing is without fail magnificent.

I remember when I candidated for this position in 1987 there was a congregational meeting. One of the exercises was to ask people as everybody stood if you joined the church in the last five years, sit down, ten years, sit down, fifteen, twenty, thirty, and people are still standing. There were people still standing at fifty and sixty, and they're getting applauded now. That will become more rare because it's tougher for the children of people who live here to be able to afford to live here. Four out of five Unitarians across the continent have come out of other faith communities and are searching for a place, maybe it's an interfaith marriage, maybe they've been wounded on some other faith and they're looking for a sanctuary. To be a lifelong Unitarian is unusual.

This church is very comfortable for people who have interfaith marriages and particularly a Jewish/Christian marriage where they want their children raised. We celebrate many of the world's religious holidays. So we will celebrate and have for years Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Rosalie Gerut has come to be our cantor which just keeps that relationship going. It means something to the families who have Jewish backgrounds here that we observe that. We have families at the time of Hanukah whose children have no Jewish parent at all but seeing the lighting of the menorah, and they want to light their menorahs at home. I think the more we can do to build understanding among all our faiths, Hindu, Buddhism, Islam, the better off we're going to be. You look around the world right now and it's religions fighting with religions.

It's always so beautiful here at Christmas with the town caroling right outside and then come in here for service. We have three services on Christmas eve and they are all filled to capacity. There are about 1500 people who worship here on Christmas eve. It's amazing.

It's both exhilarating and exhausting. It's exhilarating to see families returning here who've come from a distance. On Christmas eve we particularly see college students who have come home for Christmas and this is where they come and meet one another. It's a great evening. I don't like it when Christmas eve falls on Sunday, but other than that, it's wonderful.

At the turn of the century there was a minister, Rev. Grindell Reynolds, and his sermons were fire and brimstone. I have predecessors such as Rev. Ripley who served this congregation for 62 years. This is a beautiful standup desk here in my office and he used to write at a standup desk, and the sermons would be three to four hours long. It was much more of an oratorical message. That's not my style. That has changed over time.

I am fond of a Presbyterian minister's writings, Frederick Beekner. I think the first time I encountered Frederick Beekner's writings was in this book I'm holding called "Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC". He's written a second one. He really tries to take theological words and just put his own definition on them. Very briefly I'd love to read to you this definition of mysticism.

"Mysticism is where religion starts. Moses with his flocks and minion, Buddha under the bow tree, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of Jordan, each of them has responded to something of which words like shalom, oneness, or God even, are only pallid souvenirs. Religion as ethics, institutions, dogma, rituals, scripture, social action, all of this comes later and in the long run counts for less. Religions start as Frost said poems do with a lump in the throat to put it mildly or with a bush going up in flames, a rain of flowers, a dove coming down out of the sky. I have seen things Thomas Aquinas told a friend that make all my writings seem like straw."

I just think that is a beautiful definition and that is what led me into a lot of Beekner's writing. I say to students that come here as ministerial interns that particularly in preaching where people are really wanting to know who you are, what you believe, they can put their own test against that, but it's really important for the inner voice to be heard. Not to be pompous, not to do some of this preaching which is self-righteous, but to be aware as you're writing and you're speaking as to what is my inner voice thinking right now. If you occasionally put that into your writing, it's disarming. People who are caught and will listen because it's their own interior thought too. That's what I think Beekner does extremely well. He makes the connection.

Rev. Gary Smith