Reverend Bill is here to stay

The M.V. Unitarian Universalist Church minister makes his temporary post permanent.

The Rev. Bill Clark asked to be photographed in front of this flag at the Unitarian Universalist church, the only place of worship on the Island where it is flown. — Photo by Sam Moore

On the Sunday following the Paris shootings, it was SRO at the nearly century-and-a-half-year-old UU church on Main Street, Vineyard Haven. The Rev. William Clark was attuned to the churchgoers’ collective grief. He began, “I had planned a service today on the subject of authenticity in our lives, but I think I need to enlarge that topic to take in recent current events. I’ll start by saying that, at this time, my own authentic voice is one of great sadness.” Afterward, one of his congregants told him, “We’ve all come to you with broken hearts, and you’ve helped us begin the healing.”

Reverend Bill stood before the packed crowd without priestly vestments. He wore a snappy pale beige blazer and a blue plaid tie. His demeanor, as always, turned to boyish delight as he addressed the kids before they trooped off to Sunday school. “Was there a recent occasion,” he asked them, “when you wore costumes and masks?” As ever, he managed to insert subtext for the grownups: “Masks allow us to hide parts of ourselves. When I was little, I had three sisters who played with dolls. I wanted so badly to play with dolls, but I didn’t think they’d let me, so sometimes I played with their dolls in secret.“

After more joshing, the children departed, and the minister got down to brass tacks, but not before the usual formality of hymns, candles of joys and concerns, a prayer here, a homily there, a starchy, intelligent reading by intern minister Janet Norton, who confided that when she was a UU kid growing up, she thought of the church as a place where “I could hang out with other people who liked to think.”

Reverend Bill then spoke about a lifelong search for authenticity, full of insights about compassion as the defining signifier of any path we undertake for the sake of sharpening our spiritual resolve. He wrapped up his sermon with a “prayer for us to retain our essential humanity.” At the end, he broke character again, as they say in the theater, and he happily told his congregants he’d finally found new housing, a cottage in West Tisbury off Old County Road, replete with his personal desiderata of a woodstove and a clawfoot tub.

Mr. Clark came to Unitarianism by a most circuitous route. He grew up Catholic in Bethel, Conn., even as the family moved quite a bit with his entomologist dad (“a bug doctor,” he explained). As a young man, Bill found he learned visually, and this led him to seek a master’s degree from NYU in sign language. For two years he worked at the Maryland School for the Deaf, then threw himself into another two years at St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf in the Bronx.

And then the open road called to him. He traveled the world, settling for two years in Singapore before pushing off to New Zealand, then back to Asia again where, outside a McDonald’s in Singapore, he conversed with a group of deaf people, which yielded a job in a facility for severely handicapped kids. He says today, “I had to relieve these children of the cultural perception that disability came from bad karma, and that it was a matter of shame.”

Back in the States, and in need of a new direction, he fondly recalled childhood vacations on Cape Cod, thus repatriating himself to Provincetown. “In the early ’90s,” he reflects, “the AIDS epidemic was raging. I heard a call to do the work of caring for AIDS patients.”

He heard another call to serve as a sign language interpreter for the First Unitarian Church of Provincetown. A nascent urge to become a minister stirred in him, and one last call came through one afternoon on the beach, in a voice that nudged: “Are you coming or not?”

Mr. Clark applied to two divinity schools: Harvard and Starr King in Berkeley, Calif. Both accepted him, and his choice was a no-brainer. “It’s difficult to turn down Harvard,” he reflects today. He graduated in 1999, was ordained at Brewster Church on the Upper Cape, and was next hired by a small congregation in Houston, Texas, which he helped to grow, then on to five years at the Henry David Thoreau fellowship in Sugar Land, Texas. But after all this glorious experience, adventure, and résumé-stuffing, life got in the way. As it tends to.

Reverend Bill found that as he shoveled snow, he had chest pains he could no longer ignore. A heart attack ensued. It laid him up for six years. After recovery, he took it easier, going out for guest minister jobs, including an appearance on the Vineyard a few years back with a service titled “The Accolades of the Artichoke,” about peeling our sorrows back to the heart of the matter. The sermon ended with artichokes handed out to the assembly. (I was there and procured one, steaming it that very evening; it was delicious! I had to supply my own melted butter.)

In a recent interview, I asked Mr. Clark if he thought UU philosophy was opening up more to spirituality, to a sense of connection with a higher truth or power. Like Ms. Norton, I too was raised as a Unitarian, when all church members, including my own parents, presented themselves as strident atheists. I recalled a long-ago New Yorker cartoon where a Unitarian kneels in prayer and starts, “To Whom It May Concern.”

Reverend Bill acknowledges that congregations of the past largely occupied themselves with social action. This reminded me of my own laity’s involvement in civil rights, including a bus hired to drive from the San Fernando Valley in California to Selma, Ala. Reverend Bill said, “Things have certainly opened up, but there are still crusty UUs who’ll come up to me after a service and declare, ‘You said the word “god” seven times during the sermon!’” When I asked him what he’d be if not a Unitarian, he replied without hesitation, “A Buddhist.”

Reverend Bill’s artichoke service inspired the congregation to offer him a regular interim-minister posting, replete with a cottage on Seth’s Pond, with his (above-cited) must-have list of a fireplace and a clawfoot tub. The cottage — as they do these days — went bye-bye, but in the meantime, the congregation voted to put William Clark in the catbird seat. He said yes to a permanent ministership, and, as mentioned, a new cottage with the desired appointments recently materialized. (Does this man of the cloth keep a vision board or something?)

The only missing accoutrement, Reverend Bill told his adoring audience, was this: He needed a couch. “A really attractive, fluffy couch.” No doubt he’s already sitting on it and, one hopes, sipping brandy as he stares into the hearthside flames, pondering next Sunday’s sermon.