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Island profile: Stephen D. Adkison, the new pastor of Presbyterian Church, brings a message of love and tolerance

Not long after Rev. Dr. Stephen D. Adkison got the call to serve as the new pastor of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, the congregation that had just voted to offer him the job asked: What do you expect from us? “I told them, just keep loving each other,” he said, “That’s what it’s all about.”

Stephen Adkison grew up in Russellville, Ark. His parents ran several small businesses over the years, including a pawn shop that filled their home with an assortment of musical instruments. “It was a good business, they really helped people — a financial institution for people who could not afford a bank account,” Pastor Steve said. “My parents helped a lot of people to get through the month.”

Growing up there was plenty of music in the Adkison home, but not much church-going. “I loved bluegrass, George Jones, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline,” he remembered. “I wore out my mother’s 8-track tapes.”

The hip-swiveling wall clock in Pastor Steve’s parish office attests to the fact that Elvis Presley remains his idol. Elvis was a martial arts enthusiast, and it was Pastor Steve’s own interest in martial arts that brought him into church. “In my family, we always thought the church was for rich people,” he said. “One day my dad came home and said we‘re going to start going to church.”

He told Steve and his brothers that the pastor was a martial arts instructor and for every Sunday they went, they could have a lesson. The boys agreed at once. “That was an outreach that worked,” he said.

Pastor Steve was an honor student, and a school leader, and decades later his mother still loved to brag on him, calling him “Mr. Russellville High School.” Now he and his wife joke about it, with Amy sometimes introducing him to strangers as Mr. Russellville High School.

He graduated with honors, thinking he was bound for law school, since his father had aspired to be a lawyer, and hoped his son would achieve that goal. But by 1992, Pastor Steve had graduated from college with a degree in speech and theater, and was bound for Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and from there to Fuller Theological Seminary in California to complete a Doctor of Ministry degree in 2011. His first call was to a tiny church in Indiana, where he served from 1994 to 1997.

While he was still in college, Pastor Steve had married, and he and his first wife had two children. After graduating, he served at churches in Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri. His congregations tended to be much less progressive in their outlook than he was, and although they grew as he brought more people into church, growth was not without stress.

“The whole system started to rebel against that growth,” he said, adding, “That took a toll on my marriage and my family. The congregations were mainly white, and I’ve always been about being inclusive. Christ didn’t care about that which separates us. I was seeing racism, and even seeing it in myself.” In 2014, he accepted the call from Chapel by the Sea, in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., in part because the congregation was more progressive.

The years between the move to Florida and coming to Shelter Island were some of his most difficult and most joyous, Pastor Steve said. The family moved in 2014, and by 2016, he and his wife divorced. Their younger child, April, came out as transgender in 2018.

In 2019, he met Amy Taylor, a teacher with a child of her own. “We had both been married before and we were both followers of Christ.” Steve said. They both loved to travel, “We got out of Florida and went to places that were cold, like Alaska,” he said. “We enjoyed spending time together.”

Exactly one year after their wedding in Jerusalem, Pastor Steve’s mother, who had been battling cancer, passed away from COVID while in a rehab center in Arkansas. “I had to deal with my own fears. COVID scared me. It still scares me,” he said. “I was relieved when she passed on because she was suffering. I fear suffering, not death.”

On May 28, Pastor Steve and Amy arrived on Shelter Island with two of their three children, April and Taylor. They had packed and loaded their belongings themselves, trying to save the church money, a decision he came to regret. Then, fearing the ferry would be shut down for the night before they got across, they rushed the last few hours of the drive.

Coming home to Shelter Island on the ferry is always 10 minutes of relief, and especially for the Adkison family that night; they made it with time to spare.

Pastor Steve knew the move to Shelter Island Presbyterian would bring his family to a more tolerant and progressive congregation than many of the churches he led before, and he welcomed the change. “I don’t filter my life through politics, I filter it through my faith,” he said. “I don’t like bad theology, the kind of theology that says that this whole pandemic is a hoax, just trust in God. God gave us this vaccine, and these masks.”

Shortly after getting to the Island, Pastor Steve and Amy went to hear Tom Hashagen and Linda Shaw making music at the Ram’s Head. “We went and crashed their set, introduced ourselves and not long after I got a call from Tom. He said do you remember me? We’re doing a musical, and we need a preacher.”

Before he knew it, he was singing, “We’re Islanders, and That’s Enough,” in the finale of “A Hill of Beans” at the Historical Society.

Pastor Steve has already started reaching out to the community as a pastoral counselor, drawing on his experiences as a hospital chaplain and with a halfway house, noting that, “If a family is dealing with addiction, anxiety disorder, I want them to know that there’s someone here who cares.”

He believes that the difficult parts of his own life have actually helped him become more human. “I once said I’d never get divorced, that will never happen to me, but it did,” he said. “It helped me empathize with the pain of others. The death of my mother helped me understand what that pain is like. It prepared me to help others.”

Life has shown Pastor Steve how hard it is for people to be kind to each other, in spite of their differences, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. “It’s all about love,” he said. “If I can live my life with love, then that is a life well-lived.”

LIGHTNING ROUND Pastor Stephen Adkison

What do you always have with you? This necklace that belonged to my mother, engraved, ‘I will keep watch over you.’

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Jerusalem.

When was the last time you were elated? When we heard we were coming to Shelter Island.

What exasperates you? Bad theology.

When was the last time you were afraid? When my mom died.

Favorite movie or book? ‘The Godfather.’

Favorite food? I am a steak and potato guy.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Jesus Christ.