The office that the Rev. John Gibbons has occupied in historic First Parish Church for 31 years no longer has that lived-in look. The shelves on the wall are nearly bare, save for some miscellaneous remnants of his Bedford career—“the John Gibbons flea market.” There’s a small model of a Guatemalan folk saint, a wooden frieze from a Hindu temple, a Fitch Bible. And there’s a story behind everything.
Gibbons, 68, retires from the First Parish pulpit on Wednesday.
“The congregation voted me as Minister Emeritus – I hope to be useful,” Gibbons reflected. “For the immediate future, I look forward to turning off the radar that is constantly scanning the landscape. I’ll relish not having deadlines and I’ll do that until I get a whiff of boredom — and then it will be time for me to reinvent myself and see what kind of fresh good trouble I can get into. I say I’m retiring but I’m not going out to pasture. I want to be of service wherever I can, whenever I can – but also stay out of the way.”
“I’ll always be a cheerleader for Bedford and for First Parish,” Gibbons asserted. He said he and his wife Sue Baldauf, the retired longtime director of Youth and Family Services for the town, “hope to stay in Bedford. But 31 years here is enough.” The Rev. Wendy L. Bell has been named two-year interim minister while a committee searches for a permanent successor.
Gibbons has been prominent in many aspects of community life, from invocations at town meeting and veterans’ memorial services, to advocating for social-justice causes locally and nationally.
“In a way, I’ve been opportunistic and entrepreneurial finding ways to make this place interesting and effective,” Gibbons commented. “We see ourselves as a spiritual center with a civic circumference. We try to live that.”
“I’ve grown up here for 31 years. I have become aware of my abilities as well as my limitations. The ministry has humbled me sometimes. It has been an immense privilege to be intimate in people’s lives and be present for the very best and the most horrific and that’s been a growing up experience for me.”
Gibbons grew up in a Chicago suburb. His parents attended a Unitarian Church “and I was exposed to people of different races and life experiences. There were scientists and artists and crackpots, and I have tried in some ways to recreate that experience.”
He matriculated at Boston University and transferred to Tufts, receiving an undergraduate degree with a double major, political science and religion. “I worked in a multi-purpose community center in Boston, and I said, ‘Hey, this seems like ministry.’” So he enrolled in what he now laughingly called “the local trade school for ministry, Harvard Divinity School.”
His first post was combined Unitarian congregations in the central Massachusetts towns of Mendon and Uxbridge. “I would sometimes have to shuttle back and forth between two historic church buildings.” He served for 10 years and “I think I made a difference there. I hit it at the right time; they were ready to do new things.”
Gibbons was 38 when he was called by a vote of the members of First Parish of Bedford to be the congregation’s minister. “There was a succession of short-term ministries through much of the 20th century,” he said. That changed with the arrival of the Rev. David Weissbard in the 1960s,
“He upset the applecart in Bedford,” Gibbons said. “He made possible the creativity and newness.” Weissbard was followed by the Rev. William Schulz, who later became executive director of Amnesty International and executive director of the national Unitarian Universalist Association.
Gibbons’s full-time predecessor was Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, who served from 1979 to 1988, as he was winding down a career that spanned a half-century whereupon he became Bedford’s first Minister Emeritus. Mendelsohn was a confidant of the Rev. Jesse Jackson
“By the time I came I felt Bedford had a reputation for being socially engaged and open to creativity,” Gibbons said. “And people didn’t say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ There was an openness to new leadership and new initiative.”
“At one time the minister ran things—there was only one church in town and everybody had to pay taxes to support it. And we were quite happy to run the town.” But in recent years, “The market share for organized religion is greatly diminished. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a spiritual hunger present, and spiritual seeking takes a variety of different forms.”
He pointed out that he has been the longest-serving minister since 1800 (Samuel Stearns holds the record). “I’ve had a privileged perch and have enjoyed connections with these ancestors.”
“First Parish has more than doubled in size in its adult membership in the years since I’ve been here and in part, it’s because we have been a big tent,” and that includes “some people who don’t identify as Christians,” Gibbons commented.
“Our younger generation is looking for something that is non-dogmatic. They have been turned off by the exclusivity of many mainline traditions,” he continued. “They may need a sense of rootedness and connection, and so we have a great many young families come here from diverse religious traditions. To be connected with a religious community like this provides a sense of belonging.”
“People want to have a place where their doubts are respected. We have people who have profound spiritual practices. They welcome the opportunity of being in a diverse community that can learn from people different than themselves. One of the things I hope I have contributed is to make First Parish safer for more diversity of opinion.”
Gibbons observed that “people trying to make a difference in the world are very meaningful to me.” The church’s evolution “has been toward a bigger tent and appreciation of more diverse religious perspectives.” He quipped, “If you come here on a Sunday you might even hear somebody refer to God…approvingly.”
None of that affected the connections he made with fellow Bedford clergy. “Collegial relationships have been very good here and I’ve been appreciative of those.”
The church was a founding member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, he noted. “One of the things I focused on early was: where are we, how do we relate to the larger world? Is Bedford isolated, entirely independent?”
In the early 90s, First Parish hung a banner—Speak Out for Peace—on the historic meeting house façade when war broke out in the Persian Gulf. The banner was re-hung in early 2003 at the start of the Iraq conflict. Gibbons noted that some “military parents had a problem with that, and we took it down.” When Army Pfc. John Hart was killed in action in Iraq, his parents met with Gibbons to organize a memorial service, and he joined the family at the burial in Arlington National Cemetery. The following year, the community again mourned a battlefield loss and the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Travis Desiato turned to Gibbons.
“First Parish always has had a liberal slant and an antiwar bias. But to be with the Hart and Desiato families at those times caused us to be more nuanced,” Gibbons commented. “When you have people in your own family you learn there are different ways of being, whether military or LGBTQ or disabled. That changes you.”
“One of the privileges has been having a wide diversity of people come here to speak,” the retiring minister said. And the greatest resources are congregants and other Bedford friends. The lineup is impressive: environmental writer Bill McKibben, whose mother resides at Carleton-Willard Village. Bree Newsome, whose cousin Rachel Murphy made the connection with First Parish shortly after she took down the Confederate flag in Columbia, SC. The novelist and activist Anne Lamott and the poet Billy Collins (“I knew their literary agent when I was a teenager”).
In 1994, Gibbons related, First Parish began a relationship with a Unitarian church in Transylvania “that has had a profound effect on us.” He is looking forward to another visit there “as soon as the EU opens up travel.”
Perhaps the defining entry on Gibbons’s roster of First Parish accomplishments is the sanctuary the church provided to Maria Elena Macario, an undocumented immigrant protected in the building for more than three years until she received a one-year stay of deportation several weeks ago.
Macario came to First Parish in search of protection from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and became part of the church family. Before the pandemic, a network of more than 400 volunteers from 10 area congregations staffed around-the-clock shifts to ensure Macario’s well-being. When Covid put in-person activities on hold, Gibbons was often the only person in the building with the guest.
Gibbons noted that he is part of “an unprecedented number of staff transitions,” including the retiring parish administrator, and a new director of faith development for children, a new organist, and a new sexton. “Maybe it’s good,” he reflected. “It gives people the opportunity to say, ‘I’m not burdened by the past.’ But it is a challenge to institutional memory.”
One of the more obvious changes over the decades has been the use of technology. Gibbons recalls using a mimeograph machine to copy the order of service in Mendon. “I was using an old Mac when I arrived in Bedford, just past the typewriter stage.”
Dealing with technology’s impact on human relations became a top priority when Covid-19 forced isolation. “All of a sudden we were entirely reliant on technology,” Gibbons said. “I was fortunate to have tech-savvy members here when it comes to preparing PowerPoint slides and dropping in videos.”
The church is targeting reopening for September, and even then “there probably will be some form of hybrid” for things like committee meetings. Meanwhile, there are advantages. “We have had many Zoom memorial services with an international cast of characters.”
Accessibility has been a major theme over the years, Gibbons said, and “some of our building additions were done largely for the purpose of making them accessible for the disabled and for people of differing abilities.”
Gibbons has been accepting congratulations and best wishes. Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, noting Gibbons’s penchant for getting arrested, sent a pair of handcuffs and a “get into jail free” card, complete with Monopoly formatting. “Thoreau said ‘Simplify,’ but I’ve got a long way to get there.”
“I had 1,000 books, and Ken Gloss from Brattle Book Shop came and bought the whole thing.” He is bequeathing to his successor several books with a First Parish connection – Ellery Schempp, the retired physicist whose petition led to a 1963 Supreme Court ruling that declared the requirement of daily Bible readings and prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional; and Ernst Mayr, known as “the Darwin of the 20th century,” who lived at Carleton Willard Village.
A new anthology of dozens of Gibbons’s sermons and homilies and calls to action has been published. Led by Baldauf and others in the congregation, the project is a fundraiser for the church’s student ministry program. “We have been a field education site for Harvard Divinity School,” he said. “Student ministers just add a lot of life.”
The book is “as thick as a brick,” its author commented. The title of the volume is “Huh?” Gibbons explained. “Somebody did a study of world languages and found that the most universal word is ‘huh,’ meaning, ‘Say that again.’” He worked with a group to review and select messages from the past 31 years; Baldauf wrote the foreword. It is available online.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763