When Terry Burke first walked through the doors of the historic but languishing First Church in Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist as the new minister, he had little idea of the magnitude of commitment the job required.
“I was excited, but pretty naive,” he said following a Jan. 6 celebration at the church of his service and compassion over the past 25 years. “It was my first real job as a minister and when members asked me [during an interview] if I thought I could revive the church, I said, ‘Of course,’ but I didn’t really have a clue.
“I decided to give it three years,” said Burke with a chuckle. “Most of my colleagues saw the job as a suicide mission.”
Founded in 1769 by the Pemberton family, the church’s graveyard reads like a “Who’s Who” of local history, full of familiar names like Bowditch, Bussy, Curtis, Seaverns and Weld. The original modest white clapboard church was built in 1770 on the corner of Eliot and Centre streets. The current stone sanctuary was constructed in 1853, with the rear addition finished in 1854.
Once a cornerstone of local Unitarian Universalist worship, the church can boast that Emily Greene Balch, who won the 1946 Noble Peace Prize, was a member. But both the congregation and structure were badly in need of restoration when Burke arrived.
“We were averaging about 18 people a week, most of them in their eighties,” said Burke’s wife, Ellen McGuire, church music director. She said she took the job as the first woman organist in 1979, in part to make sure the magnificent 1854 mechanical-action E. & G.G. Hook organ was cared for or at least passed along to another church.
“It got to the point we had to hire divinity students to preach twice a month and then close up for the summers. There were also so many problems with the building. We really weren’t very viable… so we entered an extension ministry program [to help churches in trouble] that recommended Terry,” she said.
The Harvard Divinity School graduate said he decided to put the building issues aside and concentrate on people first, although he did remove the razor wire from the fence and took down the “No Trespassing” signs.
But, he admitted, there were some awkward moments in the beginning.
For one thing, his new wife was on the church board that hired ministers, so she had to recuse herself from voting. The couple met at a party in March, 1982. “Three weeks later we were engaged,” McGuire said. They were married in October, around the time the church voted on Burke, three months before he was officially hired.
Burke also noted, “I was in my late twenties and most parishioners were over 80, so at first it felt like it was a grandchild-and-grandparent relationship.”
As Burke honed his pastoral skills, “It sunk in that I had to be able to continually bring new people into the church,” he said. So he patiently began to develop services like Sunday School classes, potluck dinners, a choir, Bible classes and reading groups that would attract new members.
He also opened church doors for community meetings and neighborhood groups like the KidsArts after-school program, dance groups, the JP Children’s Choir, JP Open Studios and the popular new JP Forum.
“I remember in 1984 we had 40 people at the Easter service and thought that was a big crowd,” said McGuire, now the longest-term member of the church. “By 1988, our oldest child, Willis, was the first of 13 babies born [to church members] here.” Their two other children, Amelia, 15, and Lucy, 14, soon followed.
The congregation now numbers over 150.
Longtime member Gerry Culver said, “Terry provides a tone of evenness, compassion and acceptance, a voice that has allowed us to be reborn.”
“He’s the spiritual glue that holds the church together,” said Monroe Heyman, the building use coordinator and, along with his wife, Mary Brady, godparent to Amelia. “Terry has wonderful spiritual sense. People are drawn to him, and he’s formed relationships with many groups and causes,” Heyman said.
Heather Hawkins from the First Baptist Church down the street recalled how Burke opened his doors to her congregation after fires at her church in 1975 and 2005.
“The night of the last fire I had just had foot surgery and didn’t know about it until I heard two messages from Terry saying if we need a place we can use his church,” she said.
In his visiting sermon Jan. 6, Burke’s mentor, Rev. Carl Scovel, minister for 32 years at Kings Chapel downtown, lauded the couple for their “marriage of words and music,” and “the will and wisdom to work together.”
“I’ve watched Terry’s sense of social consciousness and mysticism grow over the years,” said Scovel during a later interview. “He’s not your typical minister. Terry has a creative disorganization that enables things to happen.”
Raised in a liberal working-class household in Flint, Mich., Burke said he developed a commitment to education, community and social justice from an early age.
“My earliest memories are of sitting on my mother’s lap as she read to me,” said Burke, an avid reader who especially loves history. “My dad worked for the phone company as a troubleshooter and always had a sense of mission about his job.”
It was considered a mixed marriage at the time—Catholic and Presbyterian—alienating his parents from organized religion. “Ironically, when I became a minister it seemed to give them permission to get back to church,” he said.
Other experiences, including “working illegally in Paris cleaning offices with immigrants… brought me in contact with people suffering,” Burke said.
Burke continues to bring that sense of social justice to his pastoral work, organizing peace vigils during both Gulf Wars and relief efforts for a refugee camp in El Salvador, doing AIDS ministry, working with the homeless at the Sojourner House in Roxbury and working with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization “to affect pubic policy by strength in numbers.”
Asked how he feels about vocal fundamentalist Christian denominations that support war, cutting resources to the poor and aggressively enforcing immigration laws, Burke shifted in his chair and sighed.
“It’s hard to see that as Christian. It’s more about nationalism and fear. I can’t believe Jesus would deport people back to countries where they’d be killed.
“But what us liberal types need to do is get out there and say what we think. To me, social justice is tied into the kingdom of God by treating each other as human beings and addressing needless suffering. There’s incredible brokenness all around us…We need to try to bring people together because I do believe we’re all connected…I pray, but a lot of my faith comes from contact with others,” said Burke, whose Jan. 27 sermon was titled “Christian Fascists.”
Of 1,200 Unitarian Universalist ministers in the country, Burke is one of only 40 serving a quarter-century or more in the same church.
Because of his long tenure, Burke said he worried the congregation may be hesitant to give him candid feedback, so he suggested a rare “re-covenanting” process.
“It’s similar to repeating wedding vows,” he explained. “Over the years we all have changed, and this gives us a chance to explore new ways to serve the community and grow a deeper connection with each other.”
Part of the ritual was the exchange of gifts. Burke presented the congregation with a plate, chalice and bell. They gave him a flowing ceremonial stole to wear with the names of all the church members on written on paper and sewn inside.
Thanks to the congregation, the ardent history buff is currently fulfilling one of his cherished dreams: taking a trip to Jerusalem the first two weeks of this month.
“Very kindly, people in the church put together money for me to go,” he said, adding, “I feel drawn to those sites so scared to Christians, Jews and Muslims. I want to see what they actually look like—the place where God made a covenant with Israel.
“I want a fresh perspective and to come back with a sense of how to transform myself and our city in a meaningful, spiritual way.”