I moved to your town in October of 2012. I’m a born and bred Southerner who loves all things Southern–things like grits and coca-cola and air conditioning. Late in September of that year, I packed up my life and my cat and drove north. I remember getting off I-395 at Rt. 6. It was raining as I drove under the rusty Providence & Worcester railroad bridge. Looking at a gloomy sky through the windshield covered with raindrops, I wondered aloud, “What have you done?”
What I had done, it turns out, was move to one of the kindest, most generous places I’ve ever known or had the privilege to live in. Y’all have welcomed me as one of your own. The people of Westfield painted and cleaned up my first home on Upper Maple Street. When I joined the Killingly Business Association on Westfield’s behalf, the other members patiently listened to my excited rambling as I described my next quirky idea. When it came time for Westfield to restore its historic 1854 structure, y’all came out in force. When we decided that the most obvious next step in our fundraising would be for me to climb our iconic tower and stay there until we raised 10% of what we needed in a single day, you showed up. We hit our goal before lunchtime. By supper, we had flown by it. One of the most remarkable days in my entire life is thanks to you and your generosity and Killingly.
Oh, Killingly. What a week we’ve had.
All of us longed to waltz into this new year with such high hopes for what the future held. Most of us were glad to leave 2016 behind. Then news broke that the Thompson Congregational Church caught fire. We were shocked, but the stellar local fire departments we are so lucky to have showed up quickly and limited the potential damage. And we were sad, but comforted by the knowledge that buildings can be rebuilt and that church sanctuaries, while often beautiful and historic, aren’t the church itself. There’s a children’s song that reminds us, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a meeting place, the church is the people.” And that’s the truth. People are what matter.
But in a final fit of desperate tragedy, we had a weekend that shook our region, our town, and our schools. In days, two students and a school administrator died. The details don’t matter, at least not for what I want to share with you. The fact is three people who were known and loved in our town died, and too soon.
Now, for those of you I haven’t met, you should know I’m the pastor of Westfield Church in downtown Danielson. It’s my job to be their and Killingly’s cheerleader. And it’s my job, my call even, to comfort people in hard times and to tell the truth. And the truth is, that this is really shitty. Death is really shitty. And if you’re upset, if you’re angry, if you’re pissed, you have every right to be. If you knew Ryan or Emma or Steve, I want you to know that I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry that someone who impacted your life in beautiful and unsuspecting ways is gone. I’m sorry your friend died. I’m sorry your child died. I’m sorry your co-worker died. I’m sorry your student died.
Some of you have reached out to me trying to understand. You want answers. You want to know why God took children’s lives. You want to know why God lets cancer exist in the first place, much less kill people. You want to know why these we love so much have gone from us. You want to know why. And you know something? I do, too. I wish I had the answers. I don’t know why. I don’t know why kids or cancer or beloved teachers. But there are some things I do know. I know that God doesn’t leave us orphaned. So I am confident those we’ve lost are in the arms of our Heavenly Parent. I know that God knows what its like to lose a child. So I am convinced God’s heart is broken over the loss of these children, too. I know that God is faithful. So I am certain that God was always with Emma and Ryan and Steve. And that God always will be.
In my line of work, I think a lot about God. I think a lot about what it means to a person of faith in this world, about how God interacts with us and cares for us and loves us. And in my time in seminary and in the church, I’ve come to lots of different beliefs about the Divine. But at the core of my understanding are these two:
The first is simple: God doesn’t choose for us to die. God didn’t want Steve or Ryan or Emma to die. God doesn’t want any of us to die. In fact, in our scriptures Jesus tells us that he came that we might have abundant life. And the last time I checked, the opposite of abundant life is death. All of that to say, phrases like “God took them home” or “God needed another angel” or “God decided it was time” are each our human attempts at describing the indescribable. And they always fall short. God doesn’t need another angel. We’re just devastated to have lost one we’ve loved so much and are desperate to find any reason for why they’re gone. We search for answers because without them, we have to live with an unknown why. And that’s hard. So what should you say? Start with “I’m sorry” or “I’m here” or “I love you.”
The second fundamental belief is one my entire faith is rooted in (excuse the language): God doesn’t make shitty things happen. But God can make really beautiful things come out of really shitty situations. When my mother died eight years ago, I was devastated. I was pissed. It was unfair and untimely. It was a lingering death, a decline we witnessed over months–my Dad and I both harboring a desperate hope that things weren’t what they were. Now, God didn’t make my Mama die. But God was able to take that fertile, shitty soil and grow a something beautiful from it. For me, it’s my relationship with my Dad, who has become in the last eight years my best friend. The story of the resurrection is one of God making beauty come from tragedy, life from the cold and dark of the tomb.
But here’s the thing, we might not see the full breadth of that beauty for years. And you might not be able to see it on your own. So for those of you who have tears blurring your vision, let me show you where I can already see that beauty budding. I see God’s redeeming love in the way this kind, generous, hopeful town has rallied around these families and one another is nothing short of inspiring. It’s a thing of beauty, how you care for one another–how we care for one another.
It’s never easy. It won’t ever be easy. But caring for one another, loving one another, holding one another is our only choice–the only one that works. So let’s do that. Let’s care and love and hold.
You are loved, Killingly. You are loved by God, by each other, by me. And we’ll make it through this tragedy the same way we always have: side by side.
I’m sorry. I’m here. I love you.
Last Sunday night around 7:45pm, I stood in front of 400 people holding candles. “Lift them high,” I directed, as we began to sing the first verse of Silent Night again. Just like that, a church that had faced so many hard, dark days was filled from floor to ceiling with candlelight and singing. And the words of St. John bore new meaning: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Ten years ago, things were grim for Westfield Church. Like many mainline churches, membership had slowly declined, dwindling to services hosting as few at 12 during the summer months. Over seven and a half years, two interim ministers did their best to speak the hard truth to the people of Westfield. Gone were the golden days of mainline Protestantism–the throngs of people who had so long attended out of holy obligation weren’t coming back, at least not with how things were. The hard work of those 7.5 years came down this: change or die.There wasn’t anything left to lose–there wasn’t any money and hardly any people. And so the small group of core members who were still around decided to give it their all, even if it meant church wouldn’t look the same as it always had. If they were going to die, it wasn’t going to be without a fight.
The first time I walked into Westfield’s historic 1854 sanctuary, I thought “Christmas!” My mother loved decorating for Christmas–a passion I inherited. There was a time during my childhood that our house sported eight Christmas trees–each with a different theme. Later, during that same visit, I offered my first notions of a plan to a member of the search committee who just happened to be a florist. “We can put a HUGE tree here,” I exclaimed as I pointed to a open spot in a nook between pews. “I’m talking 14′ or 16′! And there can be garland all around the balcony!” I spun around as I pointed, “And a big wreath on the organ pipes. And lights! Lots of lights!” Think a Jesus-y Buddy the Elf. And like most people who encountered Buddy in the holiday classic Elf, my member-florist had a look of fearful excitement and disbelief in her eyes. “Who is this guy?” she must’ve wondered. But as I kept talking, I began to the vision form in her mind’s eye, too.
It was my first meeting with Westfield’s Board and I was excited to share my big idea. I introduced it as An Old-Fashioned Christmas. They stared back at me. I tried to tell them what it would be like, but couldn’t quite find the right words. I remember one particular exchange during that meeting:
“And how many of these services do you want to have?” a member asked.
“Four,” I replied.
“Do we really need four?”
“Yes. You’ll see.”
“People don’t come back on Sunday nights,” she insisted.
“They will,” I replied.
That first Sunday night, as I stood in the back of the sanctuary waiting to begin the service by singing as I walked down our center aisle, I counted 70 people–as many as we had on Sunday morning by that point. I was thrilled. People had come back. And then some! The next week, that number doubled. And attendance only continued to grow.
We changed the name (Old-Fashioned Christmas became Victorian Christmas), and we adorned our sanctuary with seasonal greenery and ribbons. And, in what seems like the blink of an eye, we’re celebrating five years of Victorian Christmas this year–that’s five years of redefining the holidays for our quiet little corner of Connecticut. And let me tell you, there is something special about hearing 400+ people sing Silent Night. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself. It’s corny and schtick-y and wonderful and magical. And it’s redefined Christmas for our community.
All of our advertising encourages people to give it a try:
Imagine the warmth of a candlelit sanctuary welcoming you into the joy of Christmas. Worshippers in period costume sit alongside community members making themselves at home in an historic 1854 sanctuary adorned with evergreen and ribbons for the season. A bell chimes and a single voice begins to sing, “On Christmas night all people sing, to hear the news the angels bring!”
For Westfield, the story of Christmas is more than just the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s the story of Westfield’s rebirth. Westfield’s greatest burden is, in this case, its greatest asset. Any guesses what that burden/asset is? It’s our historic building that has housed the congregation since 1854. For us, the question early on was simple: How do we make the building work for us? The truth is that Victorian Christmas isn’t something every church can pull off. One of the characters in the service is the building itself–the gracious curve of the wrap-around balcony adorned with garland, trees donning gold and red ribbons, all of it combines to make a remarkable sight that sets the stage for something special to happen. (Click the image below to view at 360* panorama!)
Trees! Wreaths! Garland! Lights! Candles!
The first thing that you notice when you walk into A Victorian Christmas are those decorations on both the building and the people. You’re greeted by church members in period costumes as you walk into a cavernous room lit by candlelight. I love to watch people walk into the sanctuary for the first time on those cold December nights. They get out from under the balcony rim and stop, their heads swiveling back and forth taking it all in.
For church year purists, the sanctuary adornments are a bit much so early in the season. In the Church, we celebrate Advent–a season of preparation that is markedly not Christmas. So the red and green (neither of which are the actual liturgical color for Christmas) along with all the trimmings can be a bit much. But the seasonal decor did more than beautify our sanctuary when all of this started–it gave us something to do together.
For years, Westfield didn’t know if it could make it. There was the scrappy group of folks working hard to keep it going, but the idea of anything new seemed nearly insurmountable. But that first afternoon we held our now annual Hanging of the Greens, I watched as a congregation came together and made something magical happen. My group of faithful parishioners transformed a room with peeling paint and cracked walls into something altogether different. And what’s more: they did it together. The Hanging of the Greens is less about decorating and more about working together to create something beautiful for themselves, for God, for our community. The congregation didn’t think it had much to give Killingly. It turns out, it did.
The Town’s Christmas
Years ago, a man nicknamed Mr. Christmas presented a GIANT Christmas display at his home in Killingly. Mervin Whipple’s Winter Wonderland was an attraction people came from miles around to witness. For decades, it was a holiday tradition. Time and again, when I first arrived and started talking up A Victorian Christmas, people would reminisce about the wonders of they’d encountered at Whipple’s. While it’s not the same kind of event (sorry y’all, we don’t have 40k Christmas lights inside the sanctuary!), Victorian Christmas has taken up the mantle of being a holiday event the whole family comes to, and it has become a beloved tradition year in and year out–defining the holiday season for many in our quiet little town in Northeastern Connecticut. It’s more than a service. A Victorian Christmas also includes an annual feast (it sold out in days this year) and served as inspiration for Killingly’s New England Christmas that features thousands of luminaries lining Main Street and Davis Park (our town green)–an event our congregation spearheads. It’s beautiful.
The truth is that, sometimes, it feels a bit like production behind the scenes. An hour before each service, before the doors even open, the church is buzzing with volunteers stuffing program covers, lighting candles, rehearsing their songs and turning on Christmas lights. It’s a well-oiled machine–one that takes A LOT of people to run. Really, the show-like quality extends into the service itself. And that’s on purpose. For churchy folks, it feels very worshipful and appropriate for the season. But here’s the thing: not everyone is churchy. In fact, there are lots of people who have been deeply hurt by the church. Our goal at the beginning of all this (and still!) is for people to encounter Westfield. And one of the greatest barriers and greatest assets in that effort is one simple reality: we’re a church.
Being a church comes with a lot of baggage. More and more, the people who are our guests during Victorian Christmas are people who have complicated relationships with church, who want to believe in something deeper and be part of something bigger, but aren’t quite sure what that looks like. A Victorian Christmas gives them a chance to dip their toes into the church-y waters with little expectation on their end except to sing and hold their candle high (and, of course, NOT DROP IT. PLEASE DON’T DROP YOUR CANDLE!). It’s a small connection that has made a big difference in people’s lives. Not everyone who comes to a service becomes a member. In fact, few of them do. But, in the five years since the first Victorian Christmas, we’ve done numerous funerals of people whose only connection to us were these services. Time and again, people come to my office seeking counsel or prayer because they decided to come to Victorian Christmas. These services haven’t just changed the holidays in Killingly; they’ve changed lives.
When Christmas Came to Westfield
The greatest gift Victorian Christmas has given to my little congregation-that-could isn’t the visitors. It isn’t the newspaper write-ups or radio interviews. The greatest gift my people have been given is the belief that Westfield’s greatest days aren’t behind them. After the third Victorian Christmas ever, a longtime church member came up to me with tears in her eyes. “It’s been decades since we’ve heard that many people sing in this church,” she whispered, a emotional mix of awe and surprise in her voice. “I didn’t think I’d ever hear it again.” We had 160 In attendance that night. last week, there were more than 400.
Each week, every year, the number of voices joining in the beloved songs of the season grows. And with it, grows my congregation’s confidence that though the landscape has changed and things aren’t what they were (and won’t be), that they still have something to offer this community–that Killingly is better for having them around, which is important because there was a time my congregants didn’t know if anyone would notice if Westfield closed its doors. It’s not about the towering steeple that stands as a proud bookend to the Danielson Main Street. It isn’t about the 300+ year history this storied congregation holds. And, truth-be-told, it isn’t even about the numbers of attendees, either. It’s about the new thing God is doing with the old, and about giving a group of people who’d been to the edge the hope of a future filled with meaning and purpose. A Victorian Christmas gave my church proof that it’s worth trying new things–that your greatest burden might just be your greatest asset. And that showing up for your community time and again is never the wrong answer. Turns out for Westfield, it was a gift wrapped in Christmas ribbons. And that is how Christmas saved Westfield.
PS–If you haven’t been to Victorian Christmas yet, don’t miss your chance! We’ve got one more service on Dec. 18 at 7pm, then a special Victorian Christmas Eve at 9pm on December 24.
Holy Hannah, Greg! YOU MADE IT! YOU’RE ORDAINED!
It’s been a long road, hasn’t it? You’ve studied your tail off. You’ve written papers upon papers and gone to sessions reflecting on your spiritual development. When we first met, you were dedicated to the United Methodist Church–a denomination, it turns out, that wasn’t nearly as dedicated to you as you were to it. You served in nearly every lay capacity there was, clearly figuring out just what it meant to be called in a tradition that said you were “of sacred worth” but not good enough to love God’s people as ordained clergy.
Five years ago, you had such hope in the UMC. You thought they could change. When you moved to Connecticut to be with me, you moved your membership to the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church–a conference that said it would ordain LGBT folks. But it became clear, at least in the district we are in, that wasn’t going to happen. And so the questions that had long been lingering in the back of your mind came rushing to the front: What if the UMC isn’t the place for me? What if my call to serve God’s people is bigger than my call to change the church?
And so we started talking about what it would mean for you to leave the UMC and become a member of the United Church of Christ. Later that summer, at a church potluck, you joined Westfield and the UCC. And you experienced for the first time what it was like to be part of a church who doesn’t want you in bits and pieces but the whole of you. You started the ordination process in an association that had to figure out just what to do with your decade and half of ministry experience, 4-working-on-5-degrees, and ever-deepening commitment to the Church Universal. They were gracious and generous, and, in what seems like the blink of an eye, I’m sitting at my computer mere hours after your ordination marveling at what you’ve done–at what God has done.
During the service, two formative ministers in this journey gave you advice. Both have shown you what it means to courageously and hopefully jump into this holy, hard work. The reminded you of all sorts of essentials. But we get too caught up in the endless Advent and Christmas to-do lists, I want to add my two cents.
(1) Don’t forget to sing. Here’s the thing no minister wants to admit to: ministry is soul-sucking. It’s amazing and inspiring and challenging and hopeful. And it will suck your soul dry, if you let it. How many times have you listened to me lamenting one thing or another about the church? How many times have we stopped over a meal, realizing that we were doing it again–that we were bringing church work with us EVERYWHERE? When it gets to be too much, stop what you’re doing, head to the nearest piano and sing. Music has always been a part of your life; mine, too. And when church gossip and he-said, she-saids, and the general ridiculousness of people get to be too much–go sing a song that reminds you why you’re doing it at all. Sing of the sweetest name you know, sing of God touched you, of how life is worth living just because he lives. And if one song isn’t enough, sing another. And another. There’s a holy mystery that awakens in us when we sing–it’s the power of sung belief. Hold fast to it.
(2) Don’t mistake the local church for Jesus. Maybe this is more for me than for you. But I want to be liked. I want people to like what I do. And so often, I find myself bowing at the altar of likability. I find myself sacrificing principle or avoiding conflict to be liked. That’s because for me, sometimes, my need to be liked, to be affirmed, becomes an idol that replaces Jesus. I’m working on that. You should too.
(3) Don’t mistake yourself for Jesus. Jesus is the savior. Not you. This should be a great relief.
(4) Remember the church existed for millennia before you came along. It’ll be there after you’re gone. When it came time for me to leave my first pastoral position at a church in Georgia and move into a solo call, I was flooded with guilt. There were so many programs that were dependent on me. I didn’t want to let people down (There’s that pesky likability idol again!). I was afraid of what would happen (or wouldn’t happen) if I left. I called the minister who buried my Mama, and she said, “Jon, the church was there for thousands of years before you. And I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’ll be just fine without you.” She was right. Again, this should be a great relief.
(5) People are jerks. Be ready. Folks have got baggage and as a pastor, they’re going to expect you to carry it. In seminary, a professor of mine said people project the movies of their lives on the white screen of your clerical collar. He wasn’t kidding. Whenever someone is angry or pissy with me and I can feel a quick barb about to shoot out of my mouth, I try to ask myself what’s really happening. And nearly always, it isn’t about me. The truth is we’re broken people–and sometimes that brokenness is jerky.
(6) Don’t be a jerk. Hey, you’re broken, too. And so, when you want to jump down the throat of that one person who just will not give you a break, try to be kind. And when you fail at that (Broken, remember), be quick to say you’re sorry and own it. People will respect you for it.
(7) Love God. Love people. Everything else, it turns out, is details.
December at Westfield is a special time for us. We were married there in December. And now you’ve been ordained there during the earliest Winter month. It’s fitting, really, for you to be ordained during Advent as we look toward Christmas. Sure, the decorations are nice. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The last decade hasn’t been easy. It’s been ten long years of preparing for something great. It’s been a decade of feeling that something special was coming, but not knowing exactly what that’d look like. But then, Christmas is a holiday with a surprise at its heart–that Jesus, the Messiah, didn’t come as a trimphant king but as a vulnerable child. And so, of course, you’d be ordained not in your native South, but a foreign North. Of course, the people we learned were cold and hard growing up are among the warmest and kindest we’ve ever known. And of course, it wasn’t the UMC, but the UCC that suprised you by trumpeting “YES!” to your call after years of others shouting, “NO!.”
One final note, as the pastor of Westfield–the church that ordained you: One day your membership will change–you’ll join whatever church you’re serving and Westfield will be mine alone. Then we’ll move and Westfield will become the church that changed both our lives. Hear this: you will always be Westfield’s. We are proud to count you as one of ours, and we look forward to watching you thrive!
Five years ago, when we first met, we didn’t know Westfield even existed. And you know something? That gives me such hope. It gives me hope because that means there is more out there yet to be discovered. And I’m so excited to uncover it with you.
Greg, from they day I met you, I knew that you were called to this hard, holy, impossible, essential work. I’m proud to be on your team. I’m proud to call you my husband.
And today, I’m proud to call you Reverend.