Rev. Dr. Arnold Thomas helps cultivate the CCC as interim pastor

By Geeda Searfoorce | The Charlotte News

Just before the holidays began, members of the Charlotte Congregational Church received an email from Associate Pastor Reverend Susan Cooke Kittredge announcing that the Church’s Cabinet voted to call the Rev. Dr. Arnold Thomas as interim pastor beginning Jan. 1, 2016. Thomas will lead the CCC for one year, while a new pastor is chosen to follow Rev. Will Burhans, who has moved on after 15 years of service to serve another United Church of Christ in Winchester, Mass.

Though he has served, during his acclaimed 35-year career, as pastor, chaplain, minister and professor, in places as disparate as New York City, Little Rock, Ark., Williamstown, Mass., and Middletown and Wilton, Conn., Thomas, 62, is no stranger to Vermont. On the contrary, he and his family have made their home in Underhill for the last ten years. Thomas’ wife, Victoria Anne Short, has held down the fort to which the Reverend commuted from New York City and Southwest Connecticut for 10 years. Their three grown children have since moved out—one son is studying ministry and lives in Burlington; another son lives in New York City, and their daughter lives in New Hampshire—but Vermont is where the family’s heart is.

“I promised, when we moved to Vermont, that I would never uproot the family again,” he said.

During those ten years, though Reverend Thomas was able to engage with a more diverse worshipping community points south, there was a challenge that left him somewhat depleted. “Wall to wall concrete and people,” Thomas says, “along with the commute, really began to wear on me. Congregation members in Riverside would often say they could tell when I had spent time in Vermont. I was so much more relaxed.”

But working with diverse communities offers benefits that impact every community with which Thomas interacts. “Vermont is, in some ways, made up of a group of introverts,” he says. “We appreciate the wide-open spaces to escape to nature, to this beautiful place. But we can’t fully escape. The world community demands our engagement.” Shifts in population in Burlington and the surrounding towns, along with the wider Vermont community, call for a frank and honest airing of racial tension. To that end, Thomas has been a voice and support for others to address racial issues, celebrating—among others—Curtis Reed, Director of the VT Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in Brattleboro as an advocate working to highlight issues of racism and prejudice that affect people of color statewide.

“Vermont was the last state to establish a chapter of the NAACP,” Reverend Thomas says. “Though we are a progressive state, there is still much road to travel. We must ask ourselves, ‘How do we communicate in such a way that others can appreciate alternate perspectives and not feel threatened?’”

During the Reverend’s year ahead, he hopes to build and engage with the CCC community and orchestrate deeper connections with the larger Vermont community and the world at large. He’ll be meeting with library staff, members of the school system, and other people in the community. One area of focus is to explore immersive programs for people from the inner city to get to experience with the land and people outside the city, an initiative that he hopes will “plant the seed for greater understanding.”

CCC’s engagement with the wider community is evident in a number of its initiatives. Thomas highlights the recent installation of solar arrays that not only provide a low-carbon footprint of energy to the church but also donate any excess energy to communities in need. In this way, the church is actively working towards ecological sustainability and social justice.

“CCC is poised for a fascinating future,” Thomas said. The Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ—“It’s like a parish or chapter,” says Thomas—is the largest denomination of Protestant churches in the state and yet it is a region of very small churches. CCC is only one in five Vermont UCC churches that have an associate minister. The population of Charlotte may be smaller, but the congregation numbers at CCC are growing. “A lot of young families are looking for a place to be a part of the community in a spiritual sense, no matter what their spiritual history is.”

Reverend Thomas believes that the United Church of Christ is a natural fit for non-traditional seekers because of its non-credal status—“We don’t force a belief,” he says—and because of its own progressive history as the first church to ordain African Americans, women, and gay and lesbian people. “The church should provide a nonjudgmental space where people can develop, question and discuss their beliefs. A lot of people are afraid to share their questions about faith, but that’s exactly what we’re here for.” In February, Reverend Thomas is conducing a course, titled “Creating Your Credo,” through which participants can put their attention on what beliefs they hold and how they can live in alignment with those beliefs.

Reverend Thomas’ first extended stay in Vermont was during the summer of 1976, between the time he graduated from Hiram College in Ohio and began his studies at Yale Divinity School. The experience offered him the opportunity to visit and help strengthen churches in a number of different towns—Waterbury, Rochester, Royalton, Ludlow, Proctorsville and Weston among them. While working in Proctorsville, Reverend Thomas preached for the first time. “I arrived on a Saturday and the church secretary told me, ‘Always be prepared for the unexpected.’” The established pastor, who had been open with the community about his struggle with alcoholism, was not able to preach the next day. “She asked me to preach and I was terrified. But then she said, ‘If you don’t do it, we can’t have worship.’ Well, I couldn’t allow that.” The sermon he delivered, an “off the cuff” talk using Luke’s gospel about the “lilies of the field,” was so well received by the congregation that they asked him back for the following Sunday. “This warm, welcoming community of Vermonters embraced me,” he recalled. He’s been preaching and building community for the last 40 years.

While the search committee continues the process of choosing a new pastor who will lead CCC in its next phase of growth, Reverend Thomas, whose long-term goal is to secure a foothold in a church in Vermont or New Hampshire, is grateful to dig in to the community and help sow the seeds of growth for the future.

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