by Beth Young
As Southold’s First Universalist Church burned down in March of 2015, Reverend Kimberly Debus was at her prior parish in Key West, debating whether to come to Southold to serve as this congregation’s minister, while she finished the work needed to be ordained a UU minister.
For the past two years, Rev. Debus has worked with the congregation as they grieved the loss of their historic church and prepared to rebuild.
Now, after being ordained in late May, 2017, her two-year contract in Southold is ending and she is moving on to start a new ministry in Albany.
We caught up with Rev. Debus at the North Fork Roasting Company in early May.
“I’d sent them all my information, and five days later, the church burned down,” she recalled. “I got a call at 6:30 that morning from a member of the congregation, who said ‘I didn’t want you to read it on Facebook or see it elsewhere.’”
In shock, she reflected on whether she should make the journey, but, feeling drawn to help, she came to Southold in April 2015 to meet her future parishioners.
“They say that you know it’s the right congregation for you when you start to fall in love with them, and I fell in love with them,” she said. “We saw the devastation. All the debris was still there. And I found a congregation so determined to survive, so hurt, a little scared and definitely in mourning.”
She decided to take the job, and has been living in the parsonage adjacent to the field where the church had been, while the congregation meets for services at Greenport’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.
“I realized my first job was to be with everybody, listen to their stories, the stories of the church, who they were, what brought them here and why they stayed,” she said. “The first year was about holding them.”
“This year has been reminding them about who they are in the world, especially since the election, helping put that into focus through our principles — things like the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” she added. “How do we resist the compromise of the very values and principles that we hold so dear?”
The Unitarian Universalist denomination has activism and social justice at its core, and the church is currently engaging in an in-depth conversation with parishioners and communities around the country about the ingrained culture of white supremacy in institutions throughout the United States — and even within the church.
“The culture of white supremacy is in even our most liberal institutions, in hiring issues at the upper levels,” she said. “We’re struggling too. If we’re going to be on the streets shouting that black lives matter, they have to matter as much in our church.”
Rev. Debus said that conversation is a difficult one within many UU congregations.
“We’re going to lose some people. Not in this congregation, but some people are angry we are using these words, that we are saying we have a system that benefits from white supremacy,” she said. “But we have this incredible opportunity to be what people are looking for in a church, on a national scale, to say ‘we’re not just telling you who we are. We’re going to show you who we are.’ It’s an exciting time to be a Unitarian Universalist.”
The Southold congregation has been comforted by the welcome they’ve received at Holy Trinity, but there are many ways they’ve reached out in the community for years that they’ve had to forego the past two years.
There are no more Zumba classes, no Weight Watchers meetings. Being homeless themselves, they can’t provide beds for the Maureen’s Haven homeless shelter network. And the church’s longstanding Thanksgiving dinner has been moved to the Southold American Legion Hall.
“People have really gone out of their way to be supportive. It’s a testament to this small town, and the sense that this church is still an important part of the fabric of this community,” she said.
Rev. Debus, who is now 52 years old, came to the church after a first career as a technical writer and editor. As she prepares to move on this month, she is starting a ministry to work with congregations throughout the country on artistic and creative inspiration.
“We’ve been focused on social justice, but artistic opportunities have so much possibility to help people, to help us understand who we are,” she said.
She believes now is a good time for her to be leaving Southold, though it just happens that the timing of her two-year contract sends her out into the world now.
The church has an architect, Peter Marin, and they’re going through the permitting process to rebuild.
“They need someone now who’s going to help them with all the fundraising, and get them revved up and feeling like they’re giving birth to something again. I’m not the right person for that,” she said. “That person needs to be different, a little more business savvy, and able to deal with conflict a little more. I’m very conflict avoidant. They need someone who’s going to dig in on practical things and still hold the spiritual core through the practical work of physically rebuilding the church.”
“We’re caught between wanting to recreate what was there, and knowing you can’t recreate what was there,” she added. “How do you keep some of that preserved and build a church for the next 150 years with what we know today? That’s been hard.”
Her last sermon, on Sunday, June 4, will be called “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
“We have all these opportunities to do what’s next,” she said. “Have I chosen my own adventure? Sure. But do I know what’s going to happen? I don’t know.”
She began to recite the words from “Woyaya,” a song by Ghanaian Afro-pop band Osibisa that has become a part of the UU hymnal, her voice cracking with emotion:
“We are going, heaven knows where we are going, We’ll know we’re there. We will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, We know we will.
It will be hard we know, And the road will be muddy and rough, But we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, We know we will.”
“I’m choking up, because I’m leaving them and I love them, but I’m leaving them in part because I love them and it’s time,” she said. “If I’m able to leave this place a little better than I found it, I’ve been a good Girl Scout.”