LOOKING BACK ON 30 YEARS OF MINISTRY

MARCH 28, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

When I began my ministry at the First Parish in Norwell on April 1, 1969 I never dreamed I would still be preaching from this pulpit some 30 years later. At the time I was 32 years old and had been in the active ministry for only four and a half years. The Norwell Pulpit Committee had narrowed the list down to two remaining possible candidates, an older experienced minister, the Rev. Zoltan Nagy, a Hungarian American, from Stow, Mass., and yours truly, the Rev. Richard Fewkes, a young and relatively inexperienced minister from the First Unitarian Society in Middleboro.

After having heard each of us preach twice, once in a neutral pulpit and once in our home pulpit, the Committee gambled and took a chance on the younger inexperienced minister, who arrived in Norwell with his family, and stayed and stayed and stayed. As it turned out my competitor for the Norwell pulpit, Zoltan Nagy, died unexpectedly about a year and a half later, so the parish would have had to bear the grief of losing their recently called minister (something they'd already been through about five years earlier with Charles Engvall) and then begun the search process all over again. By calling the younger candidate they spared themselves a great deal of frustration and anguish.

I think back to the time of my pre-candidating for the Norwell pulpit. I remember the day well. I was preaching in Brockton and the Norwell Pulpit Committee was scheduled to come and hear me. I had labored mightily on my sermon and so wanted to impress. It had a catchy title, "Don't Be Silly, Sir Thomas", based on a scene from a film about Sir Thomas More, which I applied to the problem of racism in America. Well, the service started at 10:00 and there was no pulpit committee in the congregation. Maybe they were a little late getting started. I went on to the readings and the prayer. Still no committee. Then the sermon and the benediction. Still no committee.

Finally, they showed up at the coffee hour. They misunderstood the time of service. They thought it started at 11:00. I was embarrassed. They were embarrassed. I thought, well, I've blown it for sure. They think I mislead them. Then I suggested we adjourn into the sanctuary and I would offer a prayer and give the sermon again just for the committee. They were impressed that I would do this. And so we did just that. And here we are 30 years later. I am simply astonished that it has all come to pass. Where did the years go? Tell me if you can.

My first Sunday service in 1969 was on Easter, April the 6th. I had two Christenings that day, one before the service for Stephanie Clark, and one during the service for Jefferson Detwiler. I had two other Christenings for parishioners' children that year, Jonathan Hall and David Bailey. God knows how many I've had since. Or how many weddings and funerals. They all flood the memory and remind me that the greatest privilege of the ministry is to be able to share the heights and depths of life with people in those rites of passage that mark our journeys from birth to marriage to death.

No doubt about it, they are the most important tasks of personal ministry that ministers are called upon to perform--they touch lives, bind hearts and minds together, and create bonds of affection and support that last a lifetime. This church has been important to my family in some rites of passage of our own. Our daughter, Jennifer, was Dedicated here on May 30, 1971, by then Student Minister, Terry Sweetser, and our Minister of Religious Education, K.B. Inglee. Three of our four children were married here and I had the pleasure of Christening our grandchildren on five different occasions.

One of my fondest memories in 1971 was bringing Jennifer, who was in her first year of life, across the street to the Foggs, to be held by Helen Fogg's mother, Isabella Fogg, who was in her 94th year of life. Mrs. Fogg's face lit up like a Christmas tree when she saw baby Jennifer's face. It was, as the kids say, an awesome sight to behold--the beginning and ending of life greeting one another in a human embrace of hello/goodbye across the arch of a time. We see through a glass darkly and then face to face.

I was officially installed as minister here in May 1969. Professor James Luther Adams, renowned Unitarian theologian from Harvard and Andover Newton, gave the installation sermon on the topic "Fishers of Men" based on a text from the Gospel of Matthew and a piece from the writings of Chaucher on "The Parson." The Minister Emeritus of First Parish, the Rev. Alfred "Jimmy" Wilson, who was age 88 at the time, came down from Sprucehead, Maine to participate in the service. He had just returned to Maine from vacationing in Florida (drove the whole way) and then turned around and made the trek back to Norwell. He was chipper and full of delight and greeted me warmly and won everyone over with his humor and crisp British accent.

Jimmy was slated to give the Right Hand of Fellowship. He told me and the congregation that he didn't drive all the way down from Sprucehead, Maine just to shake my hand. He had a few things he wanted to say. He said that the church had had too many ministers since he retired in 1947, (I was the sixth), and he didn't want to come back for any more installations. I would do him a favor, he said, if I'd stay awhile. Well, Jimmy Wilson had been minister in Norwell for 26 years! I didn't know what he had in mind when he suggested I stay awhile. Jimmy, let me ask you, is 30 years long enough? I was the last minister of the First Parish in Norwell to have the pleasure of Jimmy Wilson at his installation service. The following September he died. We held a memorial service for him. Dana McLean Greeley, President of the UUA, came down for the service and offered some moving words of tribute. This was my most important memorial service that year and I have had many more since.

There are, of course, those times when a minister must speak his conscience, and speak as a prophet to the moral conditions of the times. I remember I once published a poem in the Newsletter from a sermon I'd written protesting the Christmas bombing of Hanoi by President Nixon. "And bombs fell/ And our hearts fell/ As the children cried/ From the fires of hell." A few days later I received an angry letter from Persis Coons who was offended that I'd criticize the President for his actions when I'd failed to also protest the Viet Cong massacre of innocent civilians in the City of Hue earlier in the war. I went to visit her and Quentin, told them that though we had different views I very much respected their feelings and welcomed their comments. We became good friends after that. Quentin had been the son of a Universalist minister and knew what a tight rope ministers must sometimes walk when trying to be both pastor and prophet to the people he serves.

Every ministry has its embarrassing moments. I remember when funeral director Spike Wadsworth escorted a grieving family out of the front pew during the musical interlude of a memorial service. He thought it was over and I had yet to offer the eulogy. I had to run down the aisle to the back of the church to ask him to please bring the family back for the rest of the service. Then there was the time I performed the marriage for Ray Hansen's daughter, Jerry, and during the recitation of the vows I misread her name and called her Mary or something else, and didn't even know I messed it up. Maybe that's why her marriage didn't last. I married the wrong people.

Without question the most embarrassing moment in my ministry was when I discovered, just before I was to preach, that my sermon on Geo. Orwell's "1984" had vanished from the lectern. A minister's worst nightmare come to pass. I sent our Ministerial Intern, Jose Ballester, back to the parsonage to see if I left it on my desk, while I ducked into the office to see if it was there. By the time I found it under a pile of papers I had left in the secretary's office the congregation had begun a Special Parish Meeting (which was scheduled after the service) to act on a proposal for a Ministerial Sabbatical. The meeting ran over to 11:30 and the kids were out of church school, so I never got to preach it that morning. After much debate the parish voted to give the minister a three month sabbatical in the spring of 1984. They probably figured I needed one after losing my sermon. Next I might lose my mind.

I have had two additional sabbaticals since and have managed in the interim not to lose anymore sermons. Except last summer when I arrived in Plymouth as the pulpit guest sans sermon. My dear wife came to the rescue and drove all the way back to Norwell, grabbed my sermon off the desk, returned to Plymouth, dashed up the aisle, just as we were singing the last verse of the hymn before the sermon. The congregation applauded. That's what I call cutting it close! Time for another sabbatical. Or maybe I should announce my retirement and become a lame duck minister. Or did I do that already?

In the course of my ministry I have seen the creation and growth of some important committees which have given birth to some productive programs over the years. The Music and Worship Committees were created during my ministry as was the Social Concerns now the Service Committee, and recently the Welcoming Congregation Committee. Because of them we have had concerts, chancel dramas, lectures and forums, workshops and discussions, and community outreach to aid people in need.

It was also at the urging of some members of the parish that I helped organize a Psi Symposium Chapter. I had a personal interest in parapsychology and spirituality, but I was reluctant to impose this interest on others. But some members asked for it, and so a chapter was created. A number of new members have come into the church through this group. I am pleased that some people have found Psi Symposium programs to be interesting and helpful and that the rest of the parish has been at least willing to tolerate them, even if they think they're a little weird. But since a lot of people think UUs are a little weird to begin with we're in good company.

I have some very fond and happy memories of my 30 years of ministry at First Parish. I remember:
...the assembling of our harpsichord in Dexter Robinson's cellar and back yard at their old Hanover home;
...the hanging of the beautiful brass chandelier from the ceiling of the church, given by Helen Fogg in loving memory of her mother;
...the Christening of adopted kids like Alex and Joy Weber and Benjamin and Emily Flynn and the pleasant surprise of pregnancies following adoptions by the Hockmans, Flynns and Robinsons;
...the dozen plus two student ministers and interns who have added variety and spice of life to our shared spiritual ventures, including the ordinations of John Marsh, Peter Lanzillotta, Jose Ballester, Henry Simoni, and Judy Campbell;
...the grand celebration of the sesquicentennial of our church meeting house in 1980, followed by a wine and cheese party at the Webster's (Sam'l Deane's old parsonage);
...the Night on Broadway musical productions involving young people and adults which instilled spirit and enthusiasm into a growing church;
...the renovation of the church meeting house and the construction of our new addition including office space, parlor, class rooms, etc., we built it and they came;
...the 350th anniversary of the parish in 1992 with two services, one in February and one in October, with UUA President Bill Schulz;
...my trips to Transylvania which established a Partner Church relationship with our Unitarian friends in Kadacs, Romania;
...the Lame Duck Pot Luck Supper which demonstrated once again that we know how to have fun and a good time with one another.

It is the performance of Last Rites, funerals and memorial services, that are the most difficult, and also the most meaningful thing that ministers are asked to do. There have been some difficult deaths in this parish in my 30 years here. One of the most difficult in my memory was the death of John Meyer at age 13, son of Ernst and Harriet Meyer, Pulpit Committee Chair and Parish Committee Chair respectively, who was struck by a car as a pedestrian not far from his home. The car was driven by an elderly member of the parish in his 80's, Earl Newton. A double tragedy. I was only in my second year of ministry. It was a painful loss to bear for all.

Then I remember, of course, Helen Fogg's sudden passing at age 80 in 1984 when she was doing research on her memoirs. I was visiting the Meyers who had moved to Virginia at the time, during my sabbatical, and our Ministerial Intern, Jose Ballester called me on the phone with the sad news. Twenty-four hours later he called me again with the news that another parishioner, Clarke Atwater, had also passed away. I remember Clarke's beautiful tenor voice which he shared with our church choir until old age and shingles ended his ability to sing and perform. So I came home from my sabbatical visit in Washington to prepare two funerals, only a day or two apart. It was not exactly my idea of what a sabbatical should be. But in the ministry you learn to expect the unexpected.

I shall never forget Pascal Webster's untimely death at age 44, from a brain tumor, such a bright wit and intelligence and a good friend and neighbor, and a wife and seven wonderful children bereft of a husband and father. It broke all our hearts--the church, the family, the community. There must have been four hundred people in the meeting house for the memorial service. I felt the pain of Allen Lester's death by his own hand at age 81 because he could no longer bear the loneliness and depression following his wife's passing a few years before. Like so many of you I was stunned by the heroic death of Charlie Vieira who was electrocuted in a balloon accident when he tried to prevent that very thing from happening to others. And who of us who were here can forget the tragic suicidal death of young Ben Kimball at age 15. The memorial sundial in his memory sits outside the window of my office, a loving tribute to a talented young man, just across from the Japanese red maple planted by the parish in memory of my father, Maxwell Fewkes, who died in 1990.

Very few deaths are easy, most are hard to bear no matter when they happen, but some touch to the quick and stick in the mind and heart forever after. These are the trials and challenges of the ministry. To bring a measure of comfort to people in the difficult passages of their lives is what the ministry is finally all about. If I have been able to do so then I am thankful. Whatever else I may do or fail to accomplish my ministry has not been in vain. I remember so many good people who are no longer with us who touched my ministry and made their imprint upon the life of this parish--there are so many--I can't even begin to name them--but all have helped to make my ministry worthwhile. I am grateful beyond words.

I consider myself fortunate indeed to have been chosen by the Norwell Pulpit Committee in 1969. This church has helped me in countless ways to grow as a person and as a minister, and we have grown together, both in terms of numbers and the quality of our spiritual life. It hasn't always been smooth. There have been a few disagreements along the way, but the communication between minister and congregation has always been open. We've been able to laugh at our mistakes and to forgive one another for our failures and shortcomings. If I had it to do over again I would do it in a minute, with no regrets. I have been richly blessed by my ministry in Norwell. To paraphrase the great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, "And all things shall be well, all manner of things shall be well in Norwell, and all who walk through the doors of this ancient meeting house shall be blessed." It has been so for me and my family for 30 years. May it be doubly so for this congregation for the next 30 years.

Gracious giver of Life, we thank you for the opportunity to love and to serve, to be ministers to and for one another, to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, and to know one another as friends who care and share what they have and who they are. We are especially thankful this day for the extended spiritual family of this free church, tolerant of our beliefs, supportive of our persons, demanding of our best thought and moral conscience, and asking only that we love truth, do justice, practice mercy and compassion, and serve the Most High. Amen.