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Sharing Memories Of Service With Reverend Gary Lewis
Tuesday April 3, 2018
By Cookie Steponaitis
Stepping into the Vergennes Congregational Church on a Friday evening, the visitor is treated to the sound of laughter, running conversation and the smells of home cooked food. Pausing at the doorway to the community room and kitchen there is a strong awareness of companionship and shared purpose visible from the forty or so seated and congregated there. The meal is clearly more than the eating of food. It is the celebration of a day, a week and a time together in life.
The Congregational Church is one of a group of area churches which provide this monthly meal in their space. This particular month another area church was providing the meal. Greeting you upstairs is Reverend Gary Lewis who has just finished meeting with a soon to be married couple and in the same afternoon having to plan for a funeral of a man who passed away unexpectedly which is all in the day of a man who serves people through his ministry and a presence that has long been associated with the Vergennes community. Yet come May 6th Reverend Gary Lewis will have delivered his last sermon, baptized his last child, held the hand of a dying person, shared the word of God with the children and teens of his church and will be retired which for Reverend Lewis the turning of a page in life and the Vergennes community the end of an era for many.
Gary Lewis, born in Ohio, grew up in Connecticut and as a teen moved to Springfield, Vermont, had no plans at all for any career related to the ministry. Dating his high school sweetheart Betty, Gary graduated from Springfield High School and attended college in Michigan while Betty attended the University of Vermont. Moving to Burlington after graduation Gary and Betty married and Gary found himself rising through the ranks in retail management with JC Penney. The family expanded to include daughters Karen and Kelly and later Gary accepted a position at the Vermont Country Store in Weston, Vermont. Betty took a job in a local middle school and the family bought the house of their dreams down a country road with a sixty mile view. As the girls grew the couple decided it was important to offer them an upbringing including faith and began to attend a very tiny Congregational Church in Chester, Vermont. Unique for its time, the little church was actually a mixture of Congregational, Pentecostal, Northern Baptist and was looking for its identity. Not vested in the religious denominational struggles going on around them, the Lewis’s became quickly involved in life in the church. They led youth group together and within three years Gary had become the lead deacon for the church. They opened themselves up to life within a church community and unknowingly put in motion the next thirty years of their lives and Gary’s life of service.
“I came home one night from church and said to my wife I really want to make a life altering change,” shared Gary Lewis. “I told her I wanted to go to seminary and enter a life of work in the church.” Not missing a beat, Betty looked at her husband and nodded her support. The very next week the couple began searching and looking for different seminaries and chose to move the family so Gary could attend the Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Taking on the role was one Gary knew would bring challenges, but he also at first thought he could work a deal. “I remember saying in prayer to God, Ok, I will do this kind of work but I am not going to bury a child,” and within two weeks of his arrival to seminary in 1986 he got his answer. The local Chester pastor was away and tragedy struck the small town. A local teenager was killed in a car crash and they could not reach the pastor. With no formal training, no classes in counseling or comforting, Gary along with his family, found themselves front and center to a community in deep pain and intense need. From that opening introduction to his chosen position Gary came to realize that the greatest gift he had to give was his presence and making sure no one was going through their battles alone. Over his twenty-nine years of serving the community as a pastor he has provided that same kind of quiet strength and presence to families for over 300 funerals, and over a hundred weddings and every kind of life situation in the spectrum. In sharing memories of his career Gary comes full circle to seeing the lessons he learned from the Bible and from life played out repeatedly. People make up a community that can choose to include and celebrate all people or set up walls, boundaries and limitations. Reverend Lewis has spent just shy of three decades being open and affirming to all who walk through the church doors and to those whose path he meets.
In the third year of his seminary studies Reverend Lewis served two churches in the coal mining region in Pennsylvania. Getting the family up very early in the morning they would leave to start off services at one church for 9 a.m. Then they would leave Karen and Kelly at Sunday school and Gary and Betty would make the trek to the second church to start over again which was followed by a dinner with a member of the congregation or Burger King. Gary would then visit people in the hospital or homebound and finally the family would return home around 11 p.m. that evening. That year of service gave Gary his working understanding and definition of the life of a pastor. Gary, a member of the United Church of Christ, interviewed in several places including a town called Vergennes. “You know,” chuckled Reverend Lewis, “when I was attending high school in Springfield, the ultimate threat of the teachers and administration was if you didn’t behave yourself and toe the line they would send you to Waterbury or to Vergennes.” While the threat was never carried out in Gary’s case, the reverend had to admit when he interviewed in Vergennes he was not quite sure what to expect.
“I don’t know if it’s just this town or most small towns, but when you walk down the street, people are just open and friendly,” shared Gary Lewis. It was the summer of 1989 when the family made the move to the parsonage house on South Water Street and Gary started his first day of work by stepping over the line from the living part of the house to his office part of the house and joked to his wife, ‘Honey, I’m going to work.’ Since that date the guiding message of Gary’s tenure has always been about the lessons of Jesus and his openness to see people as people and to reach out to everyone. “I truly believe we all carry the spark of the eternal,” shared Gary. “The life of Jesus shows us how we are all unique and special and living a part of it through him.” Central to the church’s mission and an extension of Gary’s inclusive and open hand and heart vision was the creation of the Food Shelf in 1991 which began in the backroom behind the kitchen and has grown to be a dynamic part of the greater community mission that has no limits placed on who it can serve.
Living in what Reverend Lewis calls, “a great community” he is grateful for the journey his life has taken and remarked, “I would not change an iota of it. The church allowed me the gift to be here with this position and to connect to these people. While I lead their religious services, I am their friend. We welcome all people and today people come because they want to and not because it is expected.” “I cannot come close to counting the blessings I have received to know such wonderful people and the privilege to share in their journey.”
In preparing to interview Reverend Lewis on his upcoming retirement, this reporter spoke to two dozen people in the community and asked them to name the first words that came to mind when hearing the name Reverend Gary Lewis. Many of these people do not attend his church and the collective responses used many of the same phrases, “Inclusive, welcoming, non-judgmental, quiet strength, a friend no matter what, and a great listener,” were all common themes people used to identify what they felt about this individual. “I want to continue to make a difference,” shared Reverend Lewis at the conclusion of the interview and went on to honestly share he did not know in what capacity or venue that would take place yet. While the search goes on for a new pastor for the church and Reverend Lewis finds the next chapter of his life, there are two certainties. One is that a difference has been made in three generations of people in the area and even more who knew him as a religious leader and simply a friend. Secondly, the life altering decision he made all those years ago was one of the best he could have made for it gave him a window into the lives of people in their moments of joy, pain, celebration and growth and his walk with them made it easier and more human for as long as he was there they never walked alone. The Valley Voice celebrates with Reverend Lewis and all who serve in the role of pastor, minister, reverend or friend and provides comfort when needed and listens with care and acts with love.
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