- Pastor Steve Edington delivers a sermon to his congregation Sunday, April 22, 2012. Eddington has been preaching at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua for 24 years. Staff photo by William Wrobel
- Minister Steve Edington of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Nashua makes the walk from his office to begin services Sunday, April 22, 2012. Eddington spends time before each service rehearsing his sermon. Staff photo by William Wrobel
- The choir for the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Nashua practices singing "This Land is Your Land" by Woody guthrie prior to services Sunday, April 22, 2012. prior to services Sunday, April 22, 2012. Guthrie is a pivotal figure in many sermons from the church's Minister Steve Edington. Staff photo by William Wrobel
- Staff photo by William Wrobel
The choir for the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Nashua practices singing "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie, prior to services Sunday, April 22, 2012. Guthrie is a pivotal figure in many sermons from the church's Minister Steve Edington.
- Minister Steve Edington of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Nashua speaks with parishoner Frank Grossman of Hollis before a service Sunday, April 22, 2012. Staff photo by William Wrobel
- Staff photo by William Wrobel
Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac are common ideas expressed in sermons at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Nashua. Minister Steve Eddinton's sermon hinged on the two men Sunday, April 22, 2012.
Retiring Nashua pastor fought on frontline of gay rights, other social causes
NASHUA – Stephen Edington was apprehensive.
Immersed in writing a sermon, Edington’s attention was divided between the task at hand and tracking the state House of Representative’s vote to repeal the 2-year-old gay marriage law.
The date: March 21.
Testifying in Concord, writing letters to newspapers and contacting local lawmakers, Edington lobbied hard against the repeal. In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2010, the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua had presided over what might have been the first same-sex marriage in New Hampshire history.
Though not bent toward pessimism, Edington was certain the staunch Republican majority would repeal the marriage law. His only hope, he thought, was if the same-sex marriage opponents fell short of the two-thirds needed to override the anticipated veto by Gov. John Lynch.
Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.
– Jack Kerouac
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
– Woody Guthrie
Maybe words of Edington’s two social justice heroes passed through his mind as he awaited the results. In two months, Edington would deliver a sermon on why he so admires Kerouac, the Beat-generation writer, and Guthrie, the quintessentially American folksinger and songwriter. It would be one of Edington’s final sermons before retiring.
In leading the Nashua congregation for 24 years, Edington, 67, has championed such causes as ending hunger and homelessness. He also locked elbows with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals on the front lines of the battle for their rights.
That March day, a hard-won right seemed about to come crashing down, victim of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Edington refreshed his computer screen, and there were the results of the House vote. The repeal had been trounced.
“I don’t remember when I was so happy to have been so wrong about something,” Edington said. “I think I sat there and stared at my screen for 15 to 30 seconds just to make sure I was reading it right.”
Three or four same-sex couples now are part of his congregation, Edington said. If the repeal had passed, it wouldn’t have legally invalidated existing marriages. But it would have sent a message that the marriages weren’t important, somehow not real.
Before the vote, Edington worried, “What would I say to these people? What would I say to their kids? That their marriage is not as ‘real’ as others’? I’m glad I didn’t have that conversation,” Edington said.
Edington believes the repeal failed in large part because many House Republicans, though personally against gay marriage, didn’t want to take away a right already granted.
Also, same-sex marriage has been legal in New Hampshire for two years, and “the institution of marriage has not fallen apart” during the time, Edington said.
Edington performed one of the first gay marriages – if not the very first – in New Hampshire in the early minutes of 2010 as the law took effect.
Jennifer Morton and Michelle Morrison were wed in a combined New Year’s Eve celebration and wedding.
“Shortly after midnight, I pronounced them married,” Edington said.
Another couple were married just after midnight on the steps of the state Capitol, Edington said.
“I’m not sure which of us got there first, and it doesn’t really matter,” Edington said.
Presiding over the Morton-Morrison marriage “was one of the most wonderful events” of his ministry, Edington said.
That ministry was noteworthy for the leadership Edington brought to the church, his building upon an existing mission of social activism and his role in redefining the congregation’s governance.
Bob Sampson has witnessed six pastors at the church, which puts him in a good place to reflect on Edington’s tenure.
Edington is an “excellent speaker,” Sampson said.
“He has a good pulpit presence. That’s important, because the Sunday service is one of the important things we do.”
Edington brought a new administrative style, creating an executive committee that he chairs to handle day-to-day functions. The church committee became a policymaking board of trustees.
It was a substantiative change, a departure from the usual way of doing business that took some adjustment, but “Steve was excellent in that role,” Sampson said.
Edington’s interest in Beat writers, his books, his involvement in the Kerouac festival in Lowell, Mass., aren’t related to the church, but help the church indirectly by “making the church’s presence better known in the community,” Sampson said.
Edington has authored three books: “Kerouac’s Nashua Connection,” published in 2000; “The Beat Face of God: the Beat Generation Writers as Spirit Guides,” published in 2005; and “Troubadour and Poet – The Magical Ministry of Ric Masten,” published in 2007.
His fourth book, to be titled “Bring Your Own God: The Spirituality of Woody Guthrie,” is scheduled to be published in the fall.
“We certainly will miss him,” Sampson said. “We wish him success in his future endeavors.”
The church will have an interim pastor for a couple of years while the congregation conducts a search for a permanent replacement.
Beginning in August, Edington will serve as a substitute pastor in other congregations, filling in for vacations and such.
Edington will deliver his farewell sermon on June 3, although he technically will continue as pastor until the end of July.
Edington and his wife, Michele, live in a north Nashua neighborhood They have one married son, Gordon, a civil engineer who lives in Merrimack with his wife, Crystal. Edington has no grandchildren.
“We have a ‘granddog’ they drop off every day,” he said.
Nashua’s church is the third Unitarian Universalist church at which Edington has served as a full-time pastor. The first was in Rockland, Maine, and the second in Stony Brook, N.Y., on Long Island.
Edington took a winding path to Unitarian Universalism. He was raised a conservative evangelical Baptist in southern West Virginia. But his views on religion began to change while he was an undergraduate at Marshall University.
“Four years of college caused me to rethink a lot of my theological beliefs,” he said.
He became a liberal Christian, graduated from Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1971 and was ordained originally as a minister in the American Baptist Church.
At divinity school, Edington was drawn to social justice and counted among his spiritual mentors Martin Luther King, William Sloane Coffin and Daniel and Phillip Barrigan.
After seminary, Edington served as chaplain at DePauw University in Indiana and then at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Eventually, Edington began to embrace humanistic psychology.
“I found my theology going more in a humanistic direction,” Edington said.
He came to accept Unitarian Universalism’s core tenet that there are many paths to truth, not just one, as Christianity professes.
Edington lived in the South and Midwest until he became pastor in Maine. He found he loved New England, but left Rockland for New York to be closer to his wife’s family. He eventually came to Nashua to get back to New England and to a sports team he came to love.
“I became a Red Sox fan,” Edington said. “Nashua was a little closer to Fenway Park than Long Island was.”
His predecessor, Donald Rowley, had served the Nashua church for 29 years, helping to build a stable congregation and establishing a tradition of social justice.
The church does a monthly outreach collection to support such social service programs as Southern New Hampshire Services fuel assistance and Harbor Homes health care. The congregation raised $25,000 through these collections last year.
Besides social activism, the church also has been a huge contributor to artistic and cultural life of Nashua through the concerts at the Simple Gifts Coffee House, where a Guthrie tribute was held Saturday.
Not surprising for a pastor with populist heroes, the humanistic, not administrative, aspect of his tenure at the church was the most rewarding, Edington said.
“Personal contact with people has given me the most pleasure,” he said.
Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or firstname.lastname@example.org.