Have Faith: Everyone has a story

Checking in with the Rev. Dr. Leo Christian.

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The Aquinnah Community Baptist Church is the oldest continuously operating Native American Baptist Church in the country. — Kyra Steck

For a man who relishes his past experience working with missionaries in such far-flung places as Africa and Russia, the Rev. Dr. Leo Christian finds his time on Martha’s Vineyard a blessing. He is currently pastor of the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven and the Aquinnah Community Baptist Church, although he’s set to embark on a new mission as bereavement coordinator with Hospice on Cape Cod by summer’s end. I talked to him by phone over the weekend, and I enjoyed our conversation so much that I wish I had talked to him sooner, and for longer.

The Aquinnah church is the oldest continuous Native American church in the country, and will celebrate its 327th birthday this fall. The church was served by Native American pastors, and many today serve in leadership. The church is imbued with history; in fact, musician Sean McMahon, who plays there for services and also occasionally outdoors with his wife Siren on Sunday nights, told me that you can feel the spirit of all the souls who’ve been there when you’re in the church.

“It’s a unique place,” Christian says about the little white clapboard church, “John 3:16, you see and feel that there.”

First Baptist Church is active, with several programs, dinners, and groups that meet there year-round. The Serving Hands food program is housed there, as well as several AA meetings, and the congregation reflects the cultural diversity Christian loves.

Christian is a history lover and a self-described people person who studied cross-cultural communication in college. “I love people, and I love to hear people’s stories,” he said. “If you want to get to know someone, ask about their stories, not the weather. These folks, everyone has a story and everyone has a journey. I’m in the people business.”

After growing up Catholic, Christian (how aptly named is he?) said he was touched by watching Billy Graham on television when he was a young adult; Graham stressed a personal relationship with God, something Christian hadn’t explored much before. He never looked back.

He said that serving on the Island has been a beautiful and unique experience, and he’s enjoyed the diversity of cultures and colors here.

“People on the Island have been so friendly, so nice. It’s a good place to live,” Christian said. “I live on the front porch [of the parsonage on Spring Street], and hundreds of people come by in the summer. I meet people from all over the world.”

He said the Island congregation at both churches are very kind, without any confrontations since he arrived. “And that’s not always usual,” he said. “I’m going to miss the sweetness of the Island and the people. It’s a good place.”

I have a better understanding of the way congregations work, thanks to Christian. In all my years of writing about faith, no one had ever explained it as simply as he did. There are a few kinds of churches, he said, and they have different structures. Episcopal polity is a hierarchical form of church governance, such as the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches, a more top-down approach. Then there are churches such as Presbyterian and Assembly of God that have synods, with a collaboration between the denominations and the leaders of the synod. His church falls under a Congregational model, where the governance comes from the bottom up.

“All the systems work when you work them well,” he said. “If you don’t follow the precepts and guidelines, they don’t. We’ve had a couple thousand years’ experience doing this.”

For the Baptist congregation on the Island, they’ll begin the process of finding a new leader by forming a search committee. They’ll take a look at the profiles sent to them, and form a list of their top choices. Then committee members will get a chance to hear their preaching and settle on their top candidates for interviews. A pastor can stay at a church as long the congregation and the pastor are happy together, Christian said. And when you’re ready to move, a district representative and superintendent work with the people in the congregation and the pastor to set up a transition process.

He’ll turn 68 in a few weeks, Christian said, and he’s looking forward to the new challenge of working with Hospice. His mother-in-law is currently in Hospice care, he said, and he and his wife have a family cottage on the Cape, where they’ll live full-time. Christian has worked with Hospice before, and was previously a hospital chaplain in Maryland for seven years.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege to walk with people into their grief,” he said. “I get to share joys at weddings and baptisms, and I get to see their loneliness. It’s a privilege to be in peoples’ lives, and I’ve never taken that for granted.”

Services at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven begin at 11 am on Sunday; 9 am at the Aquinnah Baptist Church.