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ON THE SCENE: Getting to know Pastor John
November 23, 2017

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A year ago, the Rev. John Sampson began his inaugural year as pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church.

For Sampson , a recent graduate of Union Seminary, it also marked his first season as a pastor of any church.

Keene Valley was neither in scope nor location what he first thought of when discussing options with his mentors and counselors at Union. Upstate for him was maybe Poughkeepsie, a community he considered for its size, location, and nearness to New York and northern New Jersey from where he hailed and had a network of family and friends.

His mentor described Keene Valley as "a gem." That inspired a look into the church's website, where he learned that this tiny congregation had decided to respond to the refugee crisis through exploring the possibility of helping a family relocate to the region, backing a local photographer heading to Istanbul to assist refugee children, and other initiatives. He was impressed that in such a tiny, rural hamlet people were engaged in both local concerns and the larger issues confronting society.

Keene Valley is how far above Poughkeepsie? Four hours? John had never imagined so many miles of trees between there and here, nor working in a rural hamlet, but his visit sparked an interest by both sides and an eventual offer that he accepted.

It's one thing to feel the call to become a pastor, and like anything, another when one gets into the doing, especially in this day in age when congregations of many faith traditions are shrinking in size as fewer and fewer people commit the time to attend and engage. Therefore, I thought for this week's column I'd touch base with Sampson - affectionately known as Pastor John - and see how he and members of the congregation are doing.

"I feel that it's been a wonderful experience," said Pastor John. "So much growth within me as a person and as a pastor, and a feeling of being more connected to the church and the wider community. I feel I have an opportunity to deepen the relationships and create new ones. I feel that there is still so much more ahead, and that was a surprising element to me. Coming in, I think I underestimated the power and the centrality of the relationships I have with both congregants and the community and the ways I need to grow into that."

Another surprise for him was the diversity of people's backgrounds and faith traditions within the congregation. For Protestants, unless one wants to drive to Lake Placid or elsewhere, the Keene Valley Congregational Church is the only option outside of the Catholic Church in Keene and a summer Episcopal chapel in St. Huberts. Thus, the congregation is filled with people of diverse traditions from conservative to liberal including having diverse expectations of a church's ministry.

"To me, this diversity is a blessing," said Pastor John. "When you read the Letters of Paul in the New Testament, you had a whole bunch of very different people in those early Christian communities with lots of different ideas. They were trying to work it out and figure out how they can be together. There is some fighting about it, some agreement about it, and some needing to take time off to reflect on it. Here we are trying to do something similar; we're trying figure out what is this community we want to be in together. Where is this community where I can feel welcome and heard?"

On a macro level, that's a similar challenge facing society. How can we, a nation of such diverse political, social, economic, religious, ethnic, and sexual diversity, get along? Congress currently seems been on a winner-take-all approach, my philosophy is better than yours, that is resulting in an increasingly polarized society, politicians and pundits shouting at each other, while others reach for their guns or try to amass as much resources as possible.

Within the church, Pastor John feels connecting people and building community is accomplished through the music, liturgy and sermon, the coffee hour, organizing the annual church bazaar, members volunteering together be it serving on the church council, the mission, and social action committee, or volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and other initiatives. People connect through finding our shared values and getting to know each other as people.

"I am continually reenergized by the people in our church and all the things they are involved with, all the causes, all the passion, and all of the vision they have," said Pastor John. "I don't think I could be happy in a church where people don't want to be engaged."

On the larger stage, Pastor John feels that a lot of the issues we face in our world are spiritual problems. To him it's not a question or economics or politics, it's a question at the deepest most spiritual essence of each person saying who are we going to be in this world and what are we going to do with all the blessing, wealth, and privilege that we have amassed for ourselves.

"What are we going to do with that," said Pastor John. "How open will our hearts be? To me, that's a spiritual question. I see it in our society. We're the wealthiest nation. We have so much in this country. Educational opportunities, economic opportunities, a stable political system, and yet we wonder how open our heart will be? In what ways will we shine our light into a world that needs light? That to me is a question of the heart and the spirit. Sometimes we seem to act out of fear and feelings of scarcity. We seem to be looking inward as a people instead of outward and with a willingness to lead."

As for the members of the congregation, they are pleased with their pastor.

"I think John Sampson is terrific," said Jim Marlatt. "He's becoming more engaged in the community and bringing a change of pace to the church, which is good. It's been a good year for him and us, and it's a learning experience for all of us. I think that's great."

"John has brought a fresh perspective," said choir director Rob Hastings. "We have had fun getting to learn each other's style. Now, after a year, we do understand each other. it's a tough sell getting people to come to church and he has helped increase attendance. He has attracted more people that are religious-minded, and that's good."

"We've been very fortunate to have Milton (Dudley), and now to have John," said Tom Both. "He's young and has all sorts of energy. John is opening the doors a little bit wider to a more diverse community, which is very positive."

"I think he's a breath of fresh air," said Anne Hurd. I think he makes everybody feel warm, included, and welcome.

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