Twenty-five Years: Rev. John Eric Gibbons at First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Bedford

Streamers were launched across the sanctuary at First Parish to celebrate the conclusion of Music Sunday - Image (c) JMcCT, 2015
Streamers were launched across the sanctuary at First Parish to celebrate the conclusion of  Music Sunday – Image (c) JMcCT, 2015

By Julie McCay Turner

John Eric Gibbons, Senior Minister, First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Bedford
John Eric Gibbons, Senior Minister, First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Bedford

In 1990 Tim Berners-Lee created the web server that became the foundation for the World Wide Web; tensions grew in the Mideast as the Cold War came to an end; the number of librarians in the US is said to have peaked; and John Eric Gibbons was called to be the 45th minister at First Parish, the Unitarian Universalist Church that inhabits the historic meetinghouse on Bedford Common.

The world has changed in fairly radical ways over the past 25 years, but a sense of random constancy has become the backbone of First Parish on the Common. “It’s not like this every Sunday,” is the rallying cry that encompasses services that can be solemn, or silly; entertaining or encouraging. In addition to Gibbons’ homilies, the First Parish pulpit has been graced by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree; New York activist Al Sharpton; Rev. Scotty McLennan –the real-life inspiration for Doonesbury cartoon character Reverend Scot Sloan; and most recently climate change activist Bill McKibben. Writer Anne Lamott has filled the building to capacity, not once but twice.

When Gibbons arrived at First Parish, the historic meetinghouse on the Common was in poor physical repair. Bedford’s 1991 Annual Town Report includes a photograph of the building with the steeple resting on the ground because of serious structural issues. In addition to the rebuilt bell tower and quite recently the undercroft – the space beneath the sanctuary where immense boulders had held up the sanctuary floor since the building was raised — a fully-accessible addition nearly doubled the building’s useful capacity. And just this year First Parish was designated as a Green Sanctuary Congregation by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA.)

First Parish grew into an esteemed role as a Breakthrough Congregation, designated by the UUA’s Office of Growth Strategies in 2012 for being among a handful of congregations that have “broken through” barriers to achieve exemplary goals. It has also received the O. Eugene Pickett Award, presented annually to an “Honor Society congregation that has made an outstanding contribution to the growth of Unitarian Universalism.”

First Parish’s reach goes well beyond Bedford when ‘The church leaves the building.’  A 1994 visit to the congregation’s Partner Church in Abasfalva, at the end of a remote dirt road in Transylvania, resulted in a strong and ongoing partnership, with nearly 100 First Parishioners visiting the village over the years. An equally rich, albeit more local, connection has grown through the twice-yearly concerts that First Parish’s choirs offer at the Bedford VA.

Bedford’s religious landscape has changed considerably, especially over the past six years:  The other large houses of worship in Bedford – First Church of Christ, Congregational; Church of the Savior, Lutheran; St. Paul’s, Episcopal; and Parish of St. Michael (Catholic); have all seen their long-term clergy retire and have called a new generation of ministerial leadership to Bedford.

“As the religious landscape of Bedford has transitioned into a new phase, John’s presence among the Interfaith Clergy Association has been a source of stability, institutional knowledge, and wisdom,” said The Rev. Christopher Wendell, of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  “His collegiality and desire to work together with other clergy in town have been valued by many of us who share in the vocation to serve Bedford as religious leaders.”

Rev. Gary Smith, First Parish in Concord’s Minister Emeritus, and his wife are members of First Parish in Bedford. During the final service of the church year he congratulated both Gibbons and the First Parish congregation for the effective partnership they have forged over 25 years. Smith quoted Jack Mendelsohn, First Parish Bedford’s late Minister Emeritus, “The future of the liberal church is almost totally dependent on these two factors: great congregations (whether large or small) and effective, dedicated ministers.  The strangest feature of their relationship is that they create one another.” The quote brought tears to Gibbons’ eyes as the congregation rose to its feet in applause.

Smith went on to note that the central task of good ministry is showing up, and he listed some of the many ways that John Gibbons has shown up in his ministry over the years, for the town of Bedford, including the Carleton-Willard Village community, participation in town ceremonial events, and work with the interfaith community.  “He has shown up for his colleagues in ministry.  He has shown up for First Parish, including worship that has been both deeply moving and refreshingly humorous.”  Then Smith elaborated on the humor, finding euphemisms that included “outrageous”, “pushing boundaries”, reminding the congregation of flying fish and confetti guns.

One of the newest members of the Bedford Interfaith Clergy Association, Dan Schoeni began to attend the group on behalf of the local LDS congregation in March.  “At my very first meeting,” Schoeni said, “John signed me up for delivering the invocation at the Bedford Pole Capping event.  Not only did he sign me up, he walked me through the process, and was there mentoring me (and heckling the actor portraying a haughty officer from Her Majesty’s Army) and literally standing beside me on the day of event.  John embodies what it means to be an ecumenical member of the clergy; his warmth, friendship, and decency transcend ecclesiastical boundaries.”

Rabbi Susan Abramson wished Gibbons mazel tov, concluding that “John has been the mainstay of the Bedford Interfaith Clergy Association for as long as I can remember. He would be the one to gather us “brothers and sisters” together at a local restaurant on a regular basis. Whether or not there were pressing issues to attend to, he made sure there was an opportunity for collegiality and support among the faith leaders in town. I have always enjoyed John’s spirit as a non-conformist and free thinker, his wry sense of humor, his actions on behalf of social justice. He has been a wonderful role model and leader. He has been more involved and done more for the town of Bedford than anyone I know, from participating in numerous town committees, to organizing rallies, to participating in every town event, to simply being a continual presence.”

As part of Gibbons’ ministerial installation, Parish Committee chair Dorothy Ellis explained the special bond between called, not simply hired, ministers and their congregations: “The Act of Installation is a symbol of the covenant between the people of our congregation and our chosen minister. No right is more precious to a free church that that of choosing our own minister. By the same token, no right is more precious to free ministers than that of choosing the congregation they will serve. This covenant, therefore, is entered with a full sense of the trust and confidence we place in each other. It is an act of joy, but it is also an act which implies mutual responsibility and commitment to the highest purposes of the church.”

Ellis said recently, “John did not burst into FPB assuming he knew best for us.  He chose to support and facilitate [First Parish], rather than consider us his flock to be led.”

Twenty-five years later, that mutual purpose remains evident, and by almost any measure, it’s been an interesting ride.

Cue the streamer guns!

 Click to enjoy the video of  Music Sunday 2015. It ends in a rousing Gaudeamus Igitur, with a special verse and flag-waving salute, along with the aforementioned streamers.

Editor’s Note: The author is a member of First Parish in Bedford

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