The newly ordained minister of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church is holding a spiky, slightly mashed seedpod from a sweet gum tree in the palm of his hand, the way a child might hold a much-loved, but threadbare stuffed animal.
“Down South we call them ‘dammit balls’ because of what you say when you step on them in the yard,” Stephen Fearing said.
This sweet gum ball became more than a pain in the instep, when a professor at the Columbia Theological Seminary led Stephen’s preaching class in an experiential exercise in which they looked at a sweet gum ball with new eyes, asking what it was, how, why and what it all meant. To Stephen, his sweet gum ball became a symbol of the importance of observing, paying attention and asking yourself — now quoting his favorite poet, Mary Oliver, “what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”
Last spring, Stephen was completing his studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, preparing to enter the world of work. Like most modern job seekers, the computer was his primary tool.
He posted his PIF, which stands for Pastoral Information Form — “we Presbyterians love our acronyms” — in a system he likened to “a Presbyterian version of Match.com.”
Soon, he got a nibble from a congregation on Long Island, a place he had never heard of. “I had to Google it.”
Stephen and his fiancée, Tricia Garrett were so charmed by the description of a lovely island with ferries and beaches and woodlands that they soon began to refer ironically to a future fictional time when, “we get the call to move to Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, sure, that would be nice!”
So when the day actually came and Stephen spoke to members of the Search Committee, he was a little stunned to tell Tricia, “Remember that Shelter Island place? Well I just got off the phone with them, and I think there is something there.”
His first visit to the Island was last March. By July, he had accepted the offer and was towing his Ford Fiesta behind a 26-foot U-Haul en route to Shelter Island.
According to Stephen, the people on the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church Search Committee — Dan Binder, Laura Dickerson, Ellen Gove, Carol Gray, Heather Reylek, Virginia Schulze and Peter Vielbig — and how they worked together, is what sealed the deal. “I felt right at home. Nothing felt forced or awkward.
Watching them work together, struggle with each other, laugh with one another, love and encourage one another. If that’s a tiny example of how this community interacts with each other — I was really impressed by that.”
Stephen grew up in Dalton, Georgia, a buckle on the Bible Belt. He was the son of schoolteachers; his father taught middle-school science and his mother taught Gifted K through 5th grade. Stephen got used to being the token Presbyterian in a sea of Southern Baptists, remembering that “all my friends would talk about when they were saved. They knew the date, they knew the time and what they were wearing when they had been saved. Whenever someone asked, ‘When were you saved?’ I gave the typical Presbyterian answer, ‘2,000 years ago.’”
Stephen is an avid musician, playing piano, trumpet, guitar, handbells, mandolin and some banjo. He played in a bluegrass band in college. But it was the three years as drum major in high school that most influenced his later choices. “For the first time ever I was in a position of leadership,” he said. “I credit a lot of my leadership skills to that experience.”
After high school, Stephen chose Presbyterian College in South Carolina, “because it felt right.” There he met Peter Hobbie, a religion professor who would influence him profoundly. “He was a brilliant educator.
He helped me build upon the faith I had been learning all my life, and helped me understand that it was O.K. to be unsure, and if there ever was a point in my faith when I had no questions, then something was wrong.” By the end of his undergraduate days, he had decided to go on to Seminary.
Stephen and his fiancée, Tricia, met when they were undergraduates at different schools, she at Georgia State. As he tells it, they were just friends. Still in spite of other romantic relationships, when they both ended up at Columbia Theological Seminary they began to maintain a monthly coffee date. One day Tricia walked into their regular coffee spot and touched the back of Stephen’s arm as she sat down. As Stephen described it, a charge went through him like Cupid’s dart. Soon, they were dating and not just for coffee.
Tricia is now studying to complete her Master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling through an online program at Wake Forest University. She’s worked with children and women who are victims of sexual abuse and with victims of sex trafficking, and plans to be a therapist.
Although they are at the beginning of their lives together, Stephen says they’ve already been through a lot.
A year ago, Tricia was in a serious car accident that left her in a wheelchair for months. “That was tough,” he said. “We haven’t always had the easy love story, but I think we’re going to be the better for it.”
Stephen speaks frankly of his struggle with depression. “I have experienced depression in my life. It runs in my family,” he said. “Pastors are people too, and need to take care of themselves and be taken care of like anyone else.”
Moving from metro Atlanta, to the edge of New England has been an adventure, Stephen said, “Now I’m the one with the weird accent.”
One big difference is proximity to nature and outdoor life. “I’ve never lived in a place where I can just go for a walk or ride my bike without getting in a car first,” he said.
Another difference he’s noticed in the transition from the Atlanta area where “macaroni and cheese is considered a vegetable,” is the absence of fast food. He confesses to the occasional craving: “The other night I dreamed about Krispy Kreme donuts.”
Paying attention, says Stephen, is the foundation of his work here. “The most important job I have, especially in the next 12 months, is to observe and to listen and to learn,” he said. “This is such a different area of the country than I have ever lived in … I am getting to know the people and to build up trust.”
Stephen noted that the Island in some ways does feel like a small rural Southern town. “Take away the ferry, forget that you are surrounded by water, and look at the way people communicate with each other — the way that humans interact with each other — in some ways the human condition is the same anywhere you go.”