When he leads a service, Reverend Bill Clark, 61, wears a starched white hat and a rainbow-colored stole. He walks up and down the aisle during the hymns with broad strides, his chin tilted upwards, his voice easily filling the cozy wooden church.
“Whatever you are going through in this life, my friends, you are not going through alone,” he told his new congregants, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Society in Vineyard Haven, at a recent Sunday morning service.
Later, in a sermon titled, “Radical Hospitality,” Mr. Clark urged parishioners to greet strangers with warmth, like the good Samaritan in Luke’s famous parable.
He ended his speech with an emotional climax. He knows firsthand what true hospitality feels like. “I walked into a Unitarian Church, and it saved my life,” he said.
Mr. Clark, the new minister at the UU Church, did not choose these words lightly. He was a victim of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as a child and struggled with addiction and depression for much of his life. But when he found the Unitarian church, he found the inclusive community he’d been searching for.
“Unitarian Universalism gave me an outlet to express these unexpressed emotions,” he said.
At that first UU service he attended in 1989, a lesbian couple stood up and celebrated their 25th anniversary, a gay couple held up their adopted son. “As a gay man, it was a religion I could choose where I knew I was accepted, and not just accepted, but celebrated.”
Last year he came to the Island as a guest minister. Afterwards he told the church his fantasy was to eventually retire and become the minister of the UU church on the Island. When the church jumped at his offer, Mr. Clark agreed to come to the Vineyard on one semi-serious condition: the church find him a small cottage near the water with a wood-burning stove and a claw-foot bathtub. They obliged, and Mr. Clark began leading services part-time in August. “I needed part-time to take it slow, and get back into the ministry again,” he said. In 2007, Mr. Clark, who suffers from heart disease, underwent quintuple bypass surgery. Weeks later, he suffered a heart attack. Since then he’s been regaining his strength. “I just have to keep to my limits, exercise, eat right.”
During the part of the service called “conversation with the congregation,” he gravitated toward the children in the room, engaging them in a sign language lesson. Starting with the basics, Mr. Clark taught the congregants the sign for hello and “my name is,” greetings he later wove into a sermon about radical hospitality. “There will be a test next week!” he told the youngsters, but they knew he was only joking. Mr. Clark studied speech-language pathology at Emerson College, and worked with deaf children for more than 25 years before becoming a minister.
“Sign language is the only other language I speak so I bring it into the Sunday services sometimes,” he said.
The idea for a career switch came when he served as an interpreter at Sunday services at a Unitarian church in Provincetown. “I was standing up there, interpreting next to the minister and I thought, I can do this,” he recalled. “People talk about that call to ministry and things, and mine was pretty loud, pretty clear.”
Midway through Harvard Divinity School, he served in the AIDS ministry in Provincetown. It was the early 1990s, the height of the AIDS epidemic and, over time, the congregation lost half of its membership to the disease.
As the new minister in Vineyard Haven, he’d like to expand the church’s membership and strengthen links with Island nonprofit organizations. “Churches are always in precarious positions, especially with the economic situation these days,” he said. “But the congregation is very dedicated to the church.”
It certainly appeared that way on Sunday. Almost all of the folding chairs were full during the morning service. “You get a lot of people checking out the new guy, so that’s kind of fun,” he said.
The congregation is small but mighty at 80 members, he said, and it benefits from a strong lay leadership. His rainbow stole was a gift from his church back in Texas, where he served for five years, and increased the membership of that church from 68 to 150 members.
Unitarian Universalism is a non-credal faith in which members are encouraged to work out their own religious system, Mr. Clark said.
“We have Christians, Jews, Buddhists, all worshipping together,” he said. Unitarians believe in the humanity of Jesus Christ, and look up to him as a wise prophet and teacher; not a divine being. Belief in a higher power varies among members.
“If I do refer to God in a sermon, I have to explain what I mean by that,” he said. “And it’s not that Peeping Tom God that I was taught about as a kid, but it’s more of an energy between people that happens.”