My fascination with the Unitarian Universalist Society is based half on its New England history and the other half on a film I watched on Netflix years ago, “Raw Faith.” Progressive Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell leads a Portland, Ore., congregation and really good things happen. That documentary led me to check out the Island’s Unitarian Universalist church on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.
Even though they’re still navigating worship during a pandemic, the society is still very much a welcoming congregation on Zoom these days. Currently they’re looking for a full-time, on-Island minister to lead them and have temporarily found an interim pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Hardies, or Rob as he answered the phone when I gave him a call this week. He is based in Washington, D.C., having just finished a 20-year gig at All Souls Church Unitarian there.
“I started here two days before 9/11, so I went from 9/11 to a pandemic,” Hardies said.
He had spoken at the Vineyard church a few times in the past as a guest and said he’s delighted to be working with them again.
“Any interim ministry is helping to serve the congregation and focusing on their goals moving forward. For this year, part of what that means is really paying attention to this slow transition back into in-person or hybrid services,” Hardies said. “That’s a tech challenge on some levels and it’s a test of a congregation’s identity and it’s a challenge for every congregation. What does it mean? Who are we when we come back together? What will church be like now that we’re back together? I think that’s a spiritual question for all religious congregations right now.”
We talked more and I found out that Hardies is originally from Rochester, N.Y., near my old stomping grounds, Syracuse. And he told me his grandmother was a radical Catholic in the 1960s. I love radical Catholics. He also worked with indigenous people in Guatemala as a human rights worker. The community was trained by Jesuits in refugee camps in Mexico and were familiar with liberation theology. “I was part of a catechesis program in the village,” he explained. “There was no priest, it was a lay indigenous Catholic group.” What an interesting guy.
Hardies was Presbyterian and later came out as gay when he was in college. He found a welcoming community in the Unitarian church, he said. And, now this was what really blew my mind, Rev. Sewell from Oregon, she’s his mentor. He knows her. And he remembers when they filmed that documentary I watched. Needless to say, I’m going to be thrilled to meet him in person sometime, hopefully when he visits the Island later in September.
In some ways, it seems unusual that someone who was a long-time minister of a congregation would be the right fit to serve as a short-term interim minister. However, Hardies pointed out that he does know what it’s like to serve a congregation for a long time, which is what the Island’s Unitarian Universalist Society is looking for.
“I have served on a short-term basis at a congregation for a year before I was at All Souls,” Hardies said. “They purchased and moved into a new church building during that time. These interim ministries can help congregations meet their goals. I’m feeling good about it. What I think I can help them do is that I am the kind of minister who goes to a place and stays a long time, and I know what that’s like. I want to help them enter into that kind of relationship with someone who can serve them in person on the Island.”
For the president of the Unitarian Universalist Society, Rita Brown, having Hardies as an interim minister is a major bonus.
“Rev. Dr. Robert Hardies is well known to us and when he expressed interest in working part-time with us, we gathered our leadership and worked with Rev. Rob to make this a reality, a win-win for us both,” Brown says. She noted that during the time Hardies was at the Washington, D.C., church he increased the Sunday attendance from 180 to 800. Clearly he picked up a few things from his mentorship with Rev. Sewell.
And Rita summed up what the Island congregation is looking for: “Honestly, we feel it is a miracle for us to have the privilege to work with Rob in this transition year. He walks softly, speaks with love in his voice, and creates goodwill as he interacts with others. We are open to learning from and with him how to be the best congregation we can aspire to be. Together, we want to make love real in the world, both locally and globally.”
That sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?
For now, you can catch Rev. Hardies on the Zoom services found on the website at uusmv.org. He’ll be in town Sept. 19.