Featured Story

Shelter Island Presbyterians continue three centuries of community service


This is the third in a series about religious institutions on Shelter Island.

According to Shelter Island Presbyterian Church’s newly appointed Pastor Bob Griffin, all religions are alike in that they identify a problem and propose a solution.

The problem today? Existential duress, the kind that Pastor Griffin believes is symptomatic of “way too many people all over the media telling you what you are and who you should be.”

For nearly 275 years, the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church has aimed to provide people with a single answer to the question “Why?” — or perhaps, more accurately, three answers, as in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that serve one purpose: Providing people with a sense of meaning, purpose and worth that transcends their statuses as social or political beings.

Now under new leadership, the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church’s congregation is taking a moment to reflect on their history and re-evaluate what God is calling them to do.

A quick examination of Shelter Island Presbyterian’s 275 years reveals a rather turbulent history, one with misfortunes as well a triumphs. The church was built in 1743 on the land where the current structure now stands.

Like most Island churches, it underwent several renovations throughout the late 19th century. Heirs of the Sylvester Manor fortune made generous donations; stained glass windows were installed; and influential pastors served the Presbyterian faithful. All was peaceful until 1934, when a large fire, thought to be the work of a 17-year-old arsonist, completely destroyed the building. According to Shelter Island Historical Society records, the young person was never tried in court or penalized.

Parishioners quickly rallied to re-build the plain but elegant church that stands today.

ANNABELLE WOODWARD PHOTO The interior of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church.
The interior of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church.

The parish now serves approximately 100 long-time Islanders and summer residents, many of whom are engaged in its numerous community initiatives such as the Scouts Program, the Early Learning Center, and the Town Dinner Bell, which provides hot lunches for elderly community members three times a week. The community pantry, where food and personal items are available for no charge, is also housed in the facility.

The congregation has always been “very close-knit,” according to Ellen Gove, the church’s clerk of session, but recently, a young pastor with a left-wing activist bent threatened to create factions within its ranks.

This May, current Pastor Bob Griffin took the helm from Reverend Stephen Fearing, a man who arrived fresh out of seminary school and served four years before leaving for reasons that many suspect are related to his tendency to — in the words of one prominent Islander — “use the pulpit to espouse personal political leanings.”

Unabashedly progressive, Reverend Fearing once delivered a sermon condemning “our nation’s idolatrous obsession with guns.”

Ms. Gove hopes to dispel rumors about his exit and believes that “his choice to leave was all his own.”

“He was an excellent preacher who was newly married,” she added. “He thought he’d be more comfortable in a larger urban center than Shelter Island.”

Reverend Fearing accepted a call to a church in Lexington, Kentucky.

Pastor Griffin has been serving since July. He hopes that the church can “continue to honor its history, but not be held captive by it” and wants to provide Islanders with a place where they can set aside their political beliefs and share in their love for Jesus Christ.

Pastor Griffin never expected to become a pastor. Growing up on Long Island, he attended an Episcopalian high school and enjoyed religious ceremonies as a boy, but a career in religion “was never even at the far reaches of what I was thinking,” even in his early adult life. After graduating from Lake Forest College in Illinois, he worked in television production and advertising in Manhattan and Los Angeles at firms such as ABC Sports and Gray Advertising.

Working in Los Angeles, he “found himself drifting,” and began attending the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church, where he befriended the pastor and started to rediscover his sense, he said, of who God was. There was a bonus: “I became aware of who I was.”

When his pastor in L.A. asked him if he’d ever considered going into seminary, he burst out laughing. A year later he was attending Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

After moving back to Long Island about a decade ago, Pastor Griffin served as the pastor for the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church and as interim pastor for the Middle Island Presbyterian Church, and served as the End End Hospice chaplain. In 2013, he moved to Shelter Island, where his parents had lived and been members of the Presbyterian congregation for 45 years.

His family’s involvement in the church influenced his decision to applying to be its pastor.“I feel very connected and invested,” he said. “I know a lot about the community, not just the congregation, and can do more for them.”

His primary mission is to “help congregants decide what God is now calling them to do.”

One of the church’s initiatives is a partnership with Kiva, a nonprofit that gives micro-loans to people all over the world helping them kick-start small businesses. The congregation is also proud of its commitment to working with the other churches on the Island supporting the All-Faith Youth Group at Camp Quinipet and other ventures.

“In terms of doing things together for the community, we’re all about that,” Pastor Griffin said.

He noted that the differences between Episcopalians, Catholics and Presbyterians mostly has to do with “polity” — or the way the church is governed. While Catholics and Episcopalian churches are hierarchical, the Presbyterian Church is “totally level,” according to Pastor Griffin. “As a reverend at a Presbyterian Church, there’s only two things that I decide. One is what I preach on and what biblical texts I use, and the other thing is what and how I will pray. Everything else we decide together,” he said,”

Minutiae aside, they all share in the “essence” of Christianity, which is belief in God, the Holy Trinity, and a meta-narrative that has imbued much of the Western world with meaning for thousands of years.

“People know they have worth… that comes from having a relationship with a God who created them, sustains them, and maintains them,” the pastor said. “They are all searching for that, and we can help them find it.”

At a recent Sunday sermon, the pastor told the congregation that, however inexplicable and seemingly unattainable, there is what Christianity’s sacred texts call “grace.”