First Congregational Church of Riverhead

Written By: Donna  Schaper

When the news reached this former pastor of the Riverhead Church that their/our roof was falling in, all she could do is quote that wisdom about the apple tree. “It was beautifully gnarled and twisted from years of bearing its idiosyncratic burdens, idiosyncratically.”  I was pastor there from 1987 to 1993. In that period, I probably added to the load of the roof and to other forms of load as well. I also added to the lightness but first the burdens need to be assessed.

I know I attended one trustees’ meeting per month for nearly seven years, making that 42 in total, at least, not to mention the special meetings about the roof, the toilets, the constant maintenance of a lovely building, most of which we had to defer because we didn’t have the money or the knowledge or both. The burdens had a kind of tenacity, well known to not for profit organizations that do what we can with what we have and let the rest go by. Sometimes deferring maintenance is a form of bad stewardship, costing more in the long term than it saves in the short. That’s why the art and act of “Church” is so precious. It is precious because it is so fragile. It is sacred because it is so unplanned. “Long Range Planning” and churches? I don’t think so. The short term is too sacred to us. Plus it likes to bang down the door every day, requiring an absolute attention to the short-term that gives the long-term a serious run for its small amounts of money. There may have been a time when congregations could support their beautiful buildings but that time passed right about the same time the typewriter and mimeograph machines left us. The time passed because congregations dwindled in membership at the same time the deferred maintenance of wealthier times came home to crash the rafters.

Apparently the roof sprung a leak because too much had been put on it. I always felt the same way about the steeple.   It too was burdened – with hope for uplift for the downtrodden, or rest when weary, or forgiveness when wronged or wronging.   Steeples point your eyes to the sky when you can’t stand the earth any more. They help you look up when down. I probably also lifted burdens during this period. Which weighed more, the burdens or the lifts, I’ll probably not get to know. Let me tell you about the carillon in the steeple. You can measure its lift compared to its burden.

Doris Pike was our biggest funder during the time I was pastor. She was the wife of Congressman Otis Pike and made the best clam chowder Manhattan has ever known. She decided we needed a carillon on the building. Said carillon would cost $10,000. I suggested to Mrs. Pike that she donate that amount to the soup kitchen or the roof leaks instead. Mrs. Pike suggested I fly a kite. Shortly after, Mrs. Pike had her way with the steeple, the town moved a new methadone clinic in next door to the church. One night in that early winter dark of November, the executive director of the methadone clinic caught my eye as we were both leaving our offices. She had tears in her eyes. “Thank you for putting the music in. Just hearing those hymns some nights allows me to imagine coming back the next day to work again with people who probably aren’t going to get much better.” I called Mrs. Pike to apologize for my materialist approach to life. My theology changed in a November dusk from one that led with the material (feed the hungry body) and moved to the spiritual (feed the hungry spirit) to a reversal of same.

Doris and I became good friends, even after the Town library received a gift of a fancy new piano from her spouse. The Pikes both liked music. Barbe Bonjour was the chair of the church’s board of trustees and also the director of the library. I join her in hoping that decisions we made in the nineteen-nineties didn’t result in today’s roof. I just don’t know. I do know that we backed into being a real church often and not just with the carillon.   We attended to the moments, those that make hunger real in stomachs real, those that cause social workers to wonder why they do what they do, those that make song and place it in to sanctuaries.

Take the Christmas Eve that a drunken farmer showed up with a large pick-up truck, not the small kind, and dumped a truck load of turnips onto the front lawn. Services were about to start. “I want to help the pooooooor.” Jim and Connie Lull quickly organized a group to dump the turnips through the window into the basement, where they were forgotten until January 12 when they started to smell. We organized a turnip cook-off contest with those that didn’t rot; the winner was turnip fries. Channel 12, News of Long Island, covered the whole thing and we turned turnips into contributions and notoriety. Besides chiming and deferring maintenance, and running a soup kitchen, which only had one stabbing that I remember, and had especially high attendance whenever Mrs. Pike made the chowder, we knew how to cook and eat. Others complain that Christianity is Eucharistically starving. We weren’t. Our Christmas fair rivaled anyone’s for its cookies, none of which were made with margarine or turnips.

We also did a pretty good job of hatching, matching and dispatching, all of which needed a roof on the church and a song from the steeple and more. At one slightly contentious wedding, between a Catholic and a Protestant, the father of the Catholic bride stood up in the middle of the service and yelled, “Where the hell is the Ave Maria?” Our organist went off program, played a beautiful Ave Maria, and people didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so they did both.

When Denise Civiletti and Peter Blasl married in the now under construction sanctuary, there were no dogs officially in the wedding, as that is against church policy. The two dogs that showed up unofficially must have thought they were in San Francisco, as they were wearing flowers in their hair. Town Supervisor, Joe Janowski, lent the couple his convertible for their get away car. He was the same town council supervisor who prohibited our soup kitchen from starting a community garden and farmer’s market in town, to replace the money Mrs. Pike wasn’t giving to the soup kitchen or the roof, because “it will never work.” Tell every Chamber of Commerce in the country that. Joe Joanowski was not known for his forward-looking point of view. Like our trustees, he did what he could with what he had. We both lived moments, while the future created itself without our consent.

Peter Blasl likes to tell the story of doing tile contracting with a plumbing contractor. The plumber started trash talking lesbian women. Peter announced, “Shut the F up, my wife is a lesbian.” She was indeed a lesbian, and a town council member, long before people decluttered their closets with old-fashioned eyes. Then she met Peter at a bar in Polishtown. Now she and Peter run the news for Riverhead, after doing many other interesting jobs and being many other interesting people on their way to carrying phones that go straight to the fire and police departments, so they can get the news out quick.

There is more to say about Riverhead, like the way I turned down First Congregational Church, San Francisco to come to Riverhead. It was during the AIDS crisis and I had three children under five. I made the mistake of bargaining with the Almighty.   “I just can’t bury a lot of young men, I just can’t. I am too tender as a mother right now.” So on to Riverhead, I came, only to have my first funeral be Doug Warner’s, a great son of the congregation who died of AIDS the long way, which many did back then. John and Shirley Warner lost their son, although John had lost him long before through rejection.

John had done time for shooting his father because he found his father on their duck farm with a migrant woman in the barn. The congregation forgave John beautifully when he got out and they even forgave John for not being able to forgive his son. Idiosyncratic? Weight bearing? Twisted? Gnarled? Yes, all of the above. Beautifully.

I hope I win this writing contest so I can give the money to the church to fix the roof, just in case I added too much weight in indecision and too little lift in song. Plus what a great investment that church is. You get song and soup, forgiveness and food, not to mention the chance to be a trustee.