The Unitarian Universalist Church in Vineyard Haven debuted a new minister Sunday in a service titled Reclaiming What We Will Become: Community, Notre Dame and the Lessons of Fire.

The sermon served as a bold introduction for Rev. Janet Newton, which espoused the importance of destruction to necessitate rebirth.

“Where I come from in the Southwest, our forests were designed to burn,” she said to the congregation. “Sometimes we have to accept that burning is required to give us a sense of purpose.”

Reverend Newton’s sermon posited that faith in monuments and in systems becomes more poignant through loss.

“The only way to feel whole is to break ourselves open, to let our ceiling cave in,” she said.

In the pulpit on Sunday. — Jeanna Shepard

In the face of declining church attendance, an aging congregation and an increasingly polarized local community, the inclination to start completely anew is not only a tempting one, but a necessary one, Reverend Newton said after her sermon. And while many people turn to cynicism and nihilism in the face of a global pandemic and ongoing climate crisis, Reverend Newton said it is important to address these anxieties while still ending on a positive note.

“We have a saying we learned in seminary which is, ‘Don’t leave people in the valley,’” she said. “Where can we source hope?”

It’s no wonder Reverend Newton is a fan of metaphors. Before entering seminary, she taught English and philosophy in her home state of New Mexico. But when her school suffered a cluster of suicides, she began to wonder if there was more she could do to help.

“I got thinking about all I couldn’t do as a teacher, and all I was tasked with as a teacher that went beyond what we were originally tasked to do,” she said. “What we needed to do was ignite the holistic spirit.”

Her school offered a program to pay for teachers’ graduate degrees, and so she tried out a few classes at a state college in pursuit of a counseling degree.

“It was horrible pedagogy,” Reverend Newton said. “I was complaining to my wife one day and she told me, ‘You’re wearing a shirt you can’t stand because you got it on sale. Go to seminary.’”

And so she did. Reverend Newton attended a low-residency program at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago from 2014 to 2017, while also moving across the country and starting a family along the way.

“I had planned to do my [church] internship in Hingham when Maria got pregnant,” Reverend Newton said.

Maria Thibodeau and Rev. Janet Newton with their children Larkin and Orion. — Jeanna Shepard

Reverend Newton is married to Islander Maria Thibodeau, who had once assured Reverend Newton she would never move back to the Vineyard. Then one day, following the birth of their child, Ms. Thibodeau informed her that she had applied for a teaching job on the Vineyard.

The family moved back to the Island and Reverend Newton did her church internship at the Unitarian Universalist church in Vineyard Haven. And now, five years later, which included serving a church off-Island, Reverend Newton is back at the chapel where she began, and back in the community she’s come to value most, she said.

“The question for me is all about ‘how can we build a sustainable community?'” she said of her goals for the new era. “Sustainable communities don’t have housing insecurity…my ideal is that the church recognizes it has a role to help.”

Part of building a sustainable community, she said, means building a space for the next generation. Her welcome address highlighted the “Rules for Children in the Worship Service,” written by CB Beal, which include “If you find that you’re sitting in front of a child and they can’t see, lean to the side,” and “If the children seated behind you are rustling papers, hand them a crayon.”

Her family-first approach extended throughout the service, when she invited “all the young people” to the front to share how things were going, and led the congregation in an improv game called eight-shake that got everyone in the chapel moving.

“A church without children’s voices is a dead church,” she said.

Due to waning attendance during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Unitarian Universalist church has had to cut its faith formation program, also known as Sunday school, as well as its music program. Reverend Newton also cited the chapel’s lack of nursery space as a significant obstacle for young parents, which is why she has set aside a tent in the backyard as a temporary reprieve during services.

Reverend Newton said she is aware that her existence as a queer woman and a mother, especially in the family sphere, is up for debate in other religious spaces. But as a Unitarian Universalist, she said she has never felt that her sexuality has been a barrier. In fact, she said it’s always been a source of community for her in the church, although she acknowledges that might not be everyone’s experience.

“We in the church have done a better job including the queer community than we have with race,” she added. “They say Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, and that’s something we’re still working to improve.”

At several points in her sermon, Reverend Newton referenced the forces of division both in the Island community and nationwide. Even the chapel’s Pride flag, she said later, regularly has to be replaced when it gets stolen or defaced.

Like the tragedy that pushed her into ministry in the first place, Reverend Newton finds that her role now is to move her congregation through a period of grief in order to get to the future.

“We know how to deal with individual grief, but we don’t have a way to deal with community grief,” she said. “In the absence of grief rituals it’s very comfortable to have someone tell you about the world in black and white terms, but that’s not what we do here. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t act like we know all the answers. No one does.”

“Part of my job is adding complexity to the conversation,” she said.