Vergennes pastor Gary Lewis made everyone feel welcome

VERGENNES — Vergennes Congregational Church Pastor the Rev. Gary Lewis, who will retire on May 6 after almost 29 years shepherding the South Water Street flock, didn’t have a sudden revelation he should pursue the ministry.
Back when Lewis was in his mid-30s he was working his third year as a retail manager at the Weston Country Store, a stint that followed 11 years at the former Burlington J.C. Penney outlet.
But he felt more satisfied at the tiny Chester Congregational Church, which he, wife Betty and daughters Karen and Kelly attended faithfully. He and Betty were involved in the youth ministry, and Gary, although a relative newcomer, had become first a deacon and then chairman of the board of deacons.
Lewis laughed about his calling to the ministry.
“It was not a light-bulb moment. Maybe that’s because I’m slow,” he said. “I just grew into it. And then it was a tug to something. I didn’t even know what the requirements to become a minister were. I had no idea. It wasn’t on my radar screen. But I got more interested. I felt so much more purpose, meaning, direction, however, within the context of the church.”
Lewis, who grew up in Connecticut but landed in Springfield at the age of 16, finally talked to his wife (who was his high-school sweetheart in Springfield) about his new career goal. To his surprise she was not surprised, nor was his pastor.
“So one day I said, ‘Honey, I think I would like to think about going into the ministry.’ And that’s not an easy thing to say to someone,” Lewis said. “And she said, ‘I thought you were going to say that.’ And I went to the pastor, and he said, ‘I thought you were going to say that.’”
The family sold their home in nearby Andover, one that Lewis said had “a 60-mile view.” Betty Lewis, an educator who later served as an Addison Northwest Supervisory Union curriculum coordinator, quit her job in the Springfield school system. Their church chipped in $13,000 to support Lewis, and the family headed to Lancaster, Pa., where Lewis attended seminary school for three years and obtained his master’s degree.
And in Lancaster he did have his revelatory moment, one that Lewis said he has often shared, not only with members of his congregation, but also during his two decades as an Addison County Home Health and Hospice chaplain.
Lewis said he was crossing a road to buy a cup of coffee at a nearby college and was struck by a feeling.
“I had this overwhelming sense of unity, of oneness, whatever, that everything was connected. All of life was connected. It wasn’t just me or them, it was everything. I would look at the kids walking, and there was unity. I would see the squirrels running, and I said that’s part of it. And then a leaf on a tree, and I was, wow. And I had tears of joy,” he said.
The sensation lasted about a day, Lewis said.
“I’m in this zone, if you will. And this isn’t a usual zone for me, and I wasn’t on anything. And then it went away,” he said. “And I interpreted that as God saying to me, ‘Gary, what you’re dealing with is real stuff, and life is a lot bigger than one person or one group or one denomination or one way. It’s just bigger, and there’s a whole lot of connection there. And you’re not doing anyone any good just walking around crying.’”
Lewis said that moment has informed his ministry ever since.
“That sense of unity has really helped me in a good way. I’m not going to say to anyone because of their tradition or lack of tradition they are ‘less than,’” he said. “They are a gift of God from my perspective. They may not interpret that that way. They may not say it that way, but I believe they are created in God’s image as I am.”
That belief has been a strength during his years at the Vergennes Congregational Church, according to its members.
Current church trustee and former deacon Kitty Oxholm said Lewis’s approach has helped church and community members, has helped him communicate well with people of all ages, and helped the church keep a stable membership.
“He lets his views be known, but he doesn’t push them on us,” said Oxholm, adding, “He accepts people for what they believe, and that’s been a real plus in keeping a church together that has a huge cross-section of beliefs.”
Former trustee Jane Spencer joined Oxholm in calling Lewis’s successful application to the Vergennes Congregational Church (ultimately, he was voted in by the congregation) a match made in heaven.
“I feel the tears coming. What makes him special? He’s a very, very kind man. It sounds so corny, but he’s loving, tolerant and he’s a very strong Christian man who reaches out into the community in a way that he believes Jesus would have done,” Spencer said. “He really makes his life an example of the way he believes a Christian should live. He just doesn’t talk the talk. He walks the walk.”
The Vergennes Congregational Church hosts the Vergennes-area food shelf in one of its South Water Street buildings. Other city churches, civic clubs and many volunteers support the food shelf, but Oxholm said the food shelf and other community outreach efforts have grown during Lewis’s years.
“We’ve always been a mission church before him, but it has really expanded. The food shelf has always been really important,” Oxholm said. “And that has really grown hugely because of him and his support.”
Vergennes City Clerk Joan Devine has seen Lewis’s good work, including serving as guardian for at least two city residents and handling his church’s discretionary mission fund to help those in need.
“He’s ready to help anyone who’s struggling to make ends meet,” Devine said. “I know he got questioned about letting New Yorkers into the food shelf here, and he said we are a food shelf that’s open to anyone who’s in need, whether it’s perceived or real. And I thought, well, that’s a good answer. We’re not going to judge people.”
The mission fund has a current annual budget of $8,000 and usually helps folks with power or fuel bills or transportation needs. Lewis said the church typically meets some of applicants’ needs while he works with them to contact other government agencies and nonprofits.
“I will say check these other sources out,” Lewis said. “But then I say we can be part of the solution. Because I think people need to hear that there is a ‘yes,’ that at least somebody is willing to hear them and react to them.”
The Vergennes Congregational Church also hosts weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; monthly community suppers, another effort in which many local churches and civic groups are involved; and has leased space for decades to the Evergreen Preschool.
Lewis praised the church members for supporting community outreach.
“On a good day a church is a vessel of people coming together to decide how they’re going to make the world better,” he said.
Lewis also appreciates the fact the church voted in 2013 to welcome people of all sexual preferences and gender identifications, although at first he was not sure the vote was necessary because of the Congregational doctrine of acceptance.
Lewis also thanked members for allowing him to officiate funerals at the church for many non-members and to serve for 20 years as a hospice chaplain to many county residents. In both cases all were served with no strings attached, he said.
Lewis called hospice work “a privilege” that he found both challenging and rewarding.
“They are reaching out, or their families are reaching out, for some connection who may not know all the answers, but just another voice, a voice of hope, a voice of care. When I go into a situation like that, I pray before I go. I say, ‘God, I have no idea what I’m going to get into,’” Lewis said. “I just go in and be with the people.”
Spencer said Lewis provided that role for her family, and also went to Italy to officiate her daughter’s wedding, where he made both Italian and American guests laugh.
“Gary was there. His presence was there to comfort the entire family and go through the entire experience,” Spencer said. “Gary goes through the experience of life and death with you. He absolutely is there with you. And there’s no big thing that you have to believe what he believes. It’s all about being with other people to help them through life. And sometimes that means helping them solve problems, and sometimes that means celebrating joy with them.”
Lewis explained why he has stayed so long at one church, but not without joking first.
“Because they don’t know how to get rid of me,” he said, before citing the community connections and friendships he has made.
“Some people look at me as their pastor, and I have that role. In the church I have a position. I have to lead worship and all that. But I am more of a friend,” he said.
For example he cited church trustee and Vergennes city attorney Jim Ouimette.
“When Jim and I get a cup of coffee over at the Small City Market, I just happen to be there and Jim just happens to be there by chance, I’m not saying to anybody I’m his pastor. And he’s not saying to anybody he’s my pastor. And I’m not saying to anybody he’s my lawyer. We’re just friends,” he said. “I guess I don’t need to convert anybody to anything, just to say, ‘You’re OK.’ I can give advice if need be. But it’s not my first shot.”
The Lewises recently bought a condo in Williston, where Gary Lewis said they would work to “create a community” anew and attend a new church. He insists he does not want a new church leadership role, or to serve as an interim pastor.
“This church has spoiled me,” he said.
Betty retired previously and has urged him to join her, Lewis said, and he does sense it’s time.
“I’ll be 68. Even though I find so much joy in the church, the creative energies may be waning. I’m thinking someone younger would bring gifts different than mine, and the church will benefit by those gifts. That’s probably the one major reason,” he said. “I’m looking forward to having not quite as much responsibility.”
It’s not easy, though, with his last day and sermon looming.
“What will hurt me is saying goodbye to people,” Lewis said. “But I think I can still be their friend. I just can’t be their pastor.”
And Vergennes won’t be the same without him, according to its city clerk.
“He’s a great, great man. I really hate to see him go. He’s just a fine gentleman,” Devine said. “He portrays the life we should all be living. Take the time and be there for someone.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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