Almost as soon as the United Methodist Church voted last week to increase restrictions against same-sex marriage, and the ordination of LGBT clergy, Heather Sinclair’s phone rang. Her email inbox filled up.
The messages Sinclair got were supportive. “We’re with you,” they said.
Many of the first calls came from other clergy members in Westport.
“They felt like condolences,” Sinclair — who took over the pulpit last summer from longtime minister Ed Horne — says.
“It was like when a family member dies. One pastor told me, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ That’s what I say when I’m with someone who’s grieving.”
Last summer, Rev. Heather Sinclair was still unpacking in her new office.
The vote — taken by delegates at the church’s global conference in St. Louis — was both expected and a surprise, Sinclair says.
“The official stance for the past 40 years has been to exclude LGBT people from marriage and ordination. But this region has spoken out strongly against it.”
The vote was 53% for the measure to uphold and strengthen the bans, 47% against.
“We’re clearly not a ‘united’ Methodist Church,” Sinclair notes. “That’s part of where my sadness and heartbreak is.”
The other part is her desire for the church she loves to embrace LGBT members, fully and in all capacities. The statement adopted several years ago by the Westport church welcomes people of “all ages, races, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and economic circumstances.”
The United Methodist Church on Weston Road.
Sinclair was at the St. Louis conference, though not as a voting delegate. “It was a blessing to be there to support friends and colleagues with prayers, hugs, singing, fellowship, chocolate, coffee and more,” she emailed Westport church members when she returned.
“Now more than ever, we must be the love of Christ in the world, to our LGBTIA friends, family and neighbors, and to those who doubt our commitment to that love. Hope moves us forward.”
Yesterday morning, at her church’s men’s monthly breakfast, she offered reflections and thoughts on her experience in St. Louis.
Across the US, churches are wrestling with the question of whether to secede from the official organization and start a new denomination — or perhaps stay and fight.
The issue is complex. Deeds to Methodist churches are held in a general trust. “We can’t just take our building and leave,” Sinclair explains.
As the local congregation debates next steps, the pastor vows, “We’re here to be the same church as before. We’ll still serve dinner at the Gillespie Center. We’ll still prepare for Lent. We’ll still be a welcoming ministry to everyone.”
And she’ll still be buoyed by all the messages of support she’s received. Including so many from her fellow ministers and rabbis, all around town.
She’s been the United Methodist Church pastor for a bit over a month. But Rev. Heather Sinclair has already participated in one of Westport’s special religious observances.
In late July, she led the ecumenical Sunday morning service at Compo Beach.
The weather was perfect. Over 100 people came.
Meanwhile, just around the jetty, the Westport Weston Family Y held its 40th annual Point to Point Swim.
At the end of the service, when Sinclair asked everyone to form a circle and sing the closing benediction, she noticed a few newcomers. Point to Point swimmers — in bathing suits and towels — had joined the group.
It was a quintessential Westport moment. And — no offense to Sinclair’s previous postings — it wasn’t anything she’d seen in Greenwich, Shelton or Trumbull.
Rev. Heather Sinclair is still settling in to her new office.
Though her pastoral career has been spent in Fairfield County, Sinclair is a Massachusetts native (Westford). She entered Colgate University planning to study medicine.
But a series of events — she took religion classes, got involved in campus church groups, and “did not do well in biology and chemistry” — culminated in her chaplain mentor encouraging her to look at the ministry.
She chose Yale Divinity School because of its diverse student population.
“I wanted to go somewhere not specifically Methodist,” Sinclair notes. She appreciates Yale’s “deep academic study as a springboard for pastoral ministry.”
She loved working in Trumbull, Shelton and — for the past 5 years — the First United Methodist Church in Greenwich. But when Rev. Ed Horne announced his retirement after 16 years in Westport, she relished the opportunity to move.
From her work in Fairfield County, Sinclair knew the church here was “open and welcoming for families, kids and people of all ages. The congregation is vital, strong and active.”
She also knew that — like all churches — it’s involved in an ongoing search to “figure out its place in the community, and the world.”
She had long admired Horne’s “voice for justice, and his pastoral manner.” It fit well with her own calling.
The United Methodist Church on Weston Road.
Now that Sinclair is here, she has found United Methodist to be indeed a welcoming place.
“They’ve embraced my family,” she says — her husband, an attorney in Fairfield who she met at Colgate, and their 10- and 8-year-old girls.
She is still exploring exactly how she’ll build on Horne’s foundation. “We’ll see what God has in store for us,” she says.
Sinclair says her passion is “connecting the church and community. Finding ways to work together — no matter what our religious backgrounds — is important. We’ll always be looking at how to bring hope and healing to the community.”
Sinclair knows that Westport has a strong interfaith clergy council. “I’m excited to explore it all,” she says. “We’re at a pivotal time, a key point for religious communities to speak out about justice and hope, and be a force for change in the world.”
Her style is “collaborative and relaxed. I believe in a cooperative ministry, one that celebrates a diversity of gifts.”
The church she now leads has a long history in Westport. But its current building on Weston Road is young enough so that some congregants were here when the cornerstone was laid in 1967. And new members join all the time.
Sinclair is still getting acclimated to Westport. She’s been to the Hall Family concert at the Levitt Pavilion — they’re congregants — and has hung out at Starbucks.
She “tags along” as her husband and daughters sail. (He’s got a 40-foot racing sloop.) In her free time Sinclair enjoys cooking, yoga, and finding fun things to do with her girls.
But, she notes, “I’m still unpacking boxes!”
With a few pauses, of course, to do things like lead a Sunday morning beach service for everyone who shows up.
As a Methodist minister for 40 years, Ed Horne recalls many profound encounters with congregants.
But perhaps his most memorable moment came when a Holocaust survivor knocked on his door, at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on New York’s Upper West Side. Rev. Horne had offered his building as a temporary home for B’nai Jeshuren, after the nearby synagogue’s ceiling collapsed.
“I never thought I’d enter a church, let alone on the High Holy Days,” the man said through tears.
During Simchat Torah, the temple gave Horne a prayer shawl. He held a Torah that had been rescued. And he danced with the Jewish worshipers.
The ceiling was repaired, but the relationship remained strong. Decades later, B’nai Jeshuren still holds music and dance programs at St. Paul and St. Andrew.
Rev. Edward Horne
They’re not the only ones. Horne welcomed in an Ethiopian evangelic church, and a Hispanic LGBT one. He helped develop a senior citizen nutrition program, a homeless shelter, and the largest food pantry in New York. “It was a wonderful, important time,” he recalls.
Horne moved on, first to a parish in Port Washington, Long Island, then in 2002 to the United Methodist Church on Weston Road. But he never wavered from his belief in the importance of ministry — and in interfaith collaboration.
As a boy in Queens, Horne was active in his church youth group. Yet he went through an “agnostic phase” during his first years at Duke University in the 1970s.
A history buff, he was also interested in “big existential questions.” So he took religion courses, and majored in both.
He considered a career in law or education, but “something about seminary” seemed appealing. Yale Divinity School turned out to be perfect: an environment of “searching, inquiry and fun, with a very interesting blend of people.”
Horne interned at a Congregational church in Branford, did campus ministry work with the legendary Rev. William Sloane Coffin, spent 3 years as an assistant pastor in Stratford, then was called to the East Avenue United Methodist Church in Norwalk.
After 5 years he moved on to St. Paul and St. Andrew. Sixteen years and one Long Island church later, Westport’s Methodists were searching for a new minister.
The United Methodist Church on Weston Road.
He and his wife Sara had always wanted to return to Connecticut. On trips to visit his sister — a teacher in Newtown — they’d get off the Merritt Parkway at exit 42, and pass the church.
“It just felt right,” Horne says of the job offer.
Another 16 years later — as he prepares to retire — the pastor says that both the church and community have been “a great fit. Westport was one of the few suburban towns we could feel at home in. It’s open, progressive, arts-oriented, and the schools are great.”
Plus, he could coach Little League. The future minister once had a tryout with the New York Yankees, at the old Yankee Stadium.
Of course, “there are issues,” he says with a knowing chuckle. “Ultra-affluence, entitlement, the mallification of Main Street.”
His greatest disappointment was the failure to get a proposal to build senior housing on Baron’s South approved. “Our committee of dedicated, highly competent Westporters put an outstanding project together, working with a first-rate developer. It would have been a jewel in Westport’s crown, and made wonderful use of that space — along with opening the property for public use.”
Among Rev. Horne’s many civic activities was service on the Baron’s South committee. (Photo/Judy James)
Overall, though, Horne feels “very privileged to be associated with the town, and so many wonderful people.” They include fellow clergy, Sunrise Rotary, and the Human Services Commission.
His own United Methodist Church is filled with “warm and loving people. They’ve been so good to our family, ever since we set foot here.”
During his ministry, the church has become an official welcoming congregation for LGBT people (with a 98% affirmative vote — despite the official national position that says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that same-sex marriages should not be conducted by Methodist ministers or in their churches).
The Westport church has also been very involved in refugee resettlement programs. A Laotian family welcomed in 35 years ago remains involved. A Bosnian family was resettled 20 years ago. This July marks the 2-year anniversary of the arrival of a Syrian family.
Rev. Edward Horne, in his eclectic office.
“The hardest part about retirement is leaving all these folks,” he says. Kids in his first confirmation class are now out of college. One will be married this summer.
His and Sara’s own children are grown too. Olivia is working at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine. Will is with Ernst & Young in New York.
“I’ve seen lots of life cycles,” Horne notes. “I feel privileged to be invited in at times of celebration. And of loss and hurt.”
One of the cycles he’s seen is in Westport’s faith community. Nearly every congregation — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish — has been hit by “the cultural shift away from organized religion,” he says. Regular attendance has been affected by many factors, including the growth of youth sports.
Most churches and temples here are “holding their own,” though. “Despite a decline in numbers, there are still strong ministries everywhere.”
And the “great interfaith community” remains. Horne has seen giants like John Branson, Robert Orkand and Frank Hall retire — and be replaced by “equally wonderful people.”
After his last sermon on June 17, Rev. Edward Horne joins that list of beloved retirees. He and Sara — a pastoral psychotherapist — will move to Goshen, where they purchased a home 12 years ago.
He’ll play tennis. He’ll kayak.
And he’ll stay in touch with all his friends here — those in his church, and the many more outside.
Winter begins at 11:48 p.m. this Monday (December 21). The weather gets colder — but the days get longer.
To celebrate, Saugatuck Congregational Church invites the public to a winter solstice labyrinth blessing (Tuesday, December 22, 6-8 p.m.).
Labyrinths are a series of concentric circles with many turns all leading to a center. They’ve been important spiritual parts of many cultures for thousands of years. Walking a labyrinth provides a calming meditative state that re-energizes, reduces stress, helps re-focus and nourishes the soul.
Liam Borner, in the labyrinth he helped create. (Photo/E. Bruce Borner)
Saugatuck’s 7-ring labyrinth spans 50 feet. The path is lined with over 1500 bricks. The church says that “world-renowned dowser Marty Cain assisted in determining the optimal location of the rings, the spine and its entrance. We hope it will become a spiritual retreat for the entire community.”
The labyrinth was an Eagle Scout project by church member and current Staples High School senior Liam Borner.
During several October weekends, members and friends of the church — along with Boy Scout Troop 36 — dug trenches and installed bricks (left over from the recent renovation project) in a special tree-lined section off the front lawn.
That’s just 1 of 3 special events to which Saugatuck Church invites the entire community.
Tomorrow (Sunday, December 20, 4-5 p.m.), a “Blue Christmas” candlelit worship service is open to anyone who is lonely, grieving or feeling down.
“Are you grieving, struggling, unemployed, uninspired — or just plain blue?” the church asks. “Do you feel disconnected from the holiday spirit? You are not alone.”
The event — co-sponsored by the United Methodist Church — includes music, prayer and reflection by the glow of candlelight.
As he did last year, Santa will again appear at the Saugatuck Community Church’s Christmas Day reception.
On Christmas Day (Friday, December 25, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.), Saugatuck Church hosts a free community reception, with a light lunch and holiday treats. Bob Cooper and Suzanne Sheridan provide live music.
That event is co-sponsored by the United Methodist Church, Unitarian Church and Temple Israel. Saugatuck Church calls this “a happy result of our years spent with no church home of our own,” following a devastating Thanksgiving week fire 4 years ago.
Transportation to the church on Christmas Day — or food delivery to your home — can be arranged by calling 203-227-1261. To volunteer or make a donation, go to www.SaugatuckChurch.org. Then click on the Christmas tree — and smile.
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