Faith Matters: Our strength is in our community

  • The Rev. Steve Wilson at the Bernardston Unitarian Congregational Church. Paul Franz

  • Steve Wilson at the Unitarian Church in Bernardston. July 16, 2017. Paul Franz

  • Steve Wilson talks after service on Sunday at the Unitarian Church in Bernardston. July 16, 2017. Paul Franz

  • Unitarian Church in Bernardston. July 16, 2017. Paul Franz

Friday, August 18, 2017

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email religion@recorder.com or call 413-772-0261, ext. 265.)

I have served the Bernardston Unitarian Congregational Church since 2005 when I also served the Northfield UU church, and like all my ministries, it is hard to leave and as much a part of the broader family of my life than a job.

I do think that there is something lost when a minister doesn’t live in the community, but that said, this area and in particular this small community has become a home to me. In a time of church decline, we at Bernardston have adapted to meet the needs of a somewhat fixed and somewhat fluid group of progressive-minded folks. The services are fun, we laugh and learn and enjoy each other.

What is reassuring to me is that, although I feel known and deeply appreciated, I also know that our strength is as a community, first. On a weekly basis, we host Sunday Services that have a message and a tone that speak more to where we are now as people than where we have been.

I take a great deal of pride that I have been the most consistent voice in the church pulpit. We have also consistently supported new films and speakers, musicians and artists that address issues and challenges for our world.

I have, however, hardly been the only voice. Regularly, there is a host of musicians including the Valley’s own Lynne Walker, and more recently the nomadic UU balladeer Jim Scott. I have proudly been, first, “a” minister among a few, and then “the” minister of the Bernardston Unitarians. However, I have never been under the illusion that I was more important than the community.

Among others, Barry Dietz, a new import to the area, is a one-man research and popular history show; Bev Phelps is a multi-talented star in the Bernardston-area cosmos; Jeanne Wahlstrom is an ordained pastor and provides us with a legacy of ministry here at the church that extends back more than 60 years; and the area’s own Dan Tinen has deeper thoughts and is better connected to Unitarian Universalism in the area than I am and shares his musical talents as well.

Truth is, although I am excited about moving to LA and running a bigger church for all the ego and better winter weather that that move brings, I absolutely have no desire to end my relationship with this church and even more importantly the roughly 40 people who call it home. The good thing is, I don’t have to. I will be back regularly for the first service in January every year, and two summer services each summer.

So, I will as of the end of this month (July) no longer be, “a” or “the” minister of that beautiful old historic house of prayer, but I will not be gone. I fought that my new role in Los Angeles allowed me to continue to have a presence here.

Probably the most important changes that have come in my time at church, comes really not from my own leadership, but the leadership of Annette Mackin and Mark Wadleigh, who have facilitated the community into being what it best can be, rather than fighting to be what we are not.

Although we are open to it, we are not really a church with many traditional families. We are a gathering of artists, activists and thinkers. Every Wednesday morning for the last eight years we have hosted a painting community, a free open workshop where any community member can find a peaceful time to create with support and advice from others. A once-a-month writers group experimented with spiritual memoir writing for the past two years, concerts, and fundraisers for the environment, collaborations with Pioneer Valley Institute, Deerfield Valley Art Association and a host of local organizations that have been a vehicle for community education and activism.

As we have done in the past, we are planning to host a coffeehouse in the Fall with a newly discovered, very talented and jazzy Boston songwriting duo. We hope to build on other fundraising ideas, a Painting Cocktail Party and an Oscars Night Party. Over the next few months, we are beginning a fundraising campaign to paint the exterior of the most historic building in town.

I might be the minister, but I am only one of its leaders. I can’t think of anyone I have ever worked with where the dance of where one’s particular skills, interests and time is in more of a balanced dance than with Annette. She is amazing, and we made each other better.

Truth is, our little community is a potent little friendly corner of the universe. And I count us as being a model of the world we want to live in.

I think we are that.

It would be great to be bigger than the normal 20 to 25 people gathered on a Sunday, but in a time when small churches are shrinking and closing all over, the fact that we are as strong or stronger than we were a dozen years ago is in some way an accomplishment. We regularly draw people from as far away as Charlemont and Amherst.

When I think about Bernardston, I think most about standing in a room full of smart people that I know and who know me, and if there is a more iconic moment, it is us all having a big hearty laugh together, that follows an obviously deeply felt moment of gravitas. That is the classic Bernardston moment for me, and the thing I will cherish most.

About the Congregational Unitarian Society

The Congregational Unitarian Society of Bernardston is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Its roots and building go back to 1739. It was first built at the top of Huckle Hill and in 1825 was moved to its present site in the center of town. The late Caryl Dyer documented the history of the church to earn it a place on the National Register of Historic Buildings. We meet on Sundays at 11:30 a.m. to sing hymns, pray, meditate, laugh, learn, drink coffee and tea and eat. The Arts and Activism program brings important issues, speakers and workshops to the Sunday morning slot once a month. An active Women’s Group helps mobilize the congregation for special events.

The church contact number is 413-330-0807; visit online at www.bernardstonunitarian.org.