Well, that day finally arrived today.
For the Rev. Wendy Fitting, it’s the first day of the rest of your life.
And for the rest of us, it’s the first day without her guiding hand in a key Gloucester pulpit.
Nearly 25 years after taking the helm at Gloucester’s Independent Unitarian Universalist Church on Middle street, Rev. Wendy is retiring.
Ronald Reagan was preparing to leave the Presidency, the USSR still existed but cell phones didn’t; Bill & Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama weren’t heard of, either, Bill Belichick was still coaching in New York and Larry Bird had just retired when Ms. Fitting was installed in Gloucester at the U/U.
For those of you who don’t know, Gloucester is the First Parish for Universalists in the entire country. John Murray founded the church from here — which basically said that “everyone can be saved”, not just the rich (hence universalism) — even before the American Revolution was over. He also established the separation of church and state in a lawsuit that freed Gloucester citizens from paying required taxes to the Church of England, which set the precedent for the national ruling that would follow.
That’s a heavy legacy to carry forward. But Wendy Fitting has done so with grace, humor, conviction, and a scholarly mix of influences and sources to illustrate her weekly lessons to the flock.
Her sermons and attitude packed the place and yet, as she always said, “We don’t take attendance here” with that typical twinkle in her eye. She only wanted you there if you wanted to be there — for the community, the fellowship and the dialogue.
When Wendy first began, the church had a modest turnout every week
But she rapidly established that she was foremost a defender of justice and a teller of certain truths that needed to be aired.
It wasn’t “her way or the highway”, either, it was an invitation to spark a debate, a discussion and, as always, a chance to sit down together and eat. And talk. And eat. U/Us love to eat . . . and talk. But mostly to eat and talk.
The music became even more important as the choir and the congregation began to grow. The meeting house itself, the building, became as much a symbol for community as it did for the Sunday services. All sorts of do-gooder groups use the church, from AA to the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market, and Wendy encouraged and assisted the social justice element of its members.
When the first Gulf War in 1991 sparked a musical outpouring by Gloucester choirs, one of the songs “Finlandia” was forbidden by the organizers “in charge” as it suggested that “the skies of other countries were just as blue as those of our land.”
Wendy justly declined to participate, and the choir followed her right out the door. Peace was her agenda, not puffed up political patriotism. Principles were more important than popularity. In fact, social justice figured in Wendy’s sermons around the calendar. She was always leading and encouraging support for those who needed the most support in the community, not always the most popular constituency.
When asked what were her proudest accomplishments, she first replied “Just living.” Then she thought about it and said: “attracting and including people who wouldn’t normally come to a U/U church.” She wasn’t kidding either, because the population swelled under her earthly reign, and included lapsed Catholics, disgruntled Episcopals, Jews, Muslims and Buddists, all congregating and interacting together happily, spiritually and socially at the many events in and out of the church.
Wendy was the glue. But it was her first answer “just living” that told it all. For 25 years, Wendy Fitting used her church ministry to try and make peoples’ lives better — not necessarily to rid them of all sin, but to be better people in their lives that are battered with temptation and bad influences and terrible role models.
She taught us to forgive other people, but as important, to forgive ourselves. We all surrender to petty thoughts and she tried to get us to get over it and move on. She was so good at getting our heads out of just our own game and think about a slightly bigger picture than just our immediate selves — which in Gloucester can be no mean feat.
Wendy loves Gloucester and has no plans to go anywhere. She will surface in some new spiritual or temporal venture after taking a huge, well deserved rest. But there’s no rest for the motivated. She’ll be back in action, it’s in her blood. She’s too young still and vital to fade away from her calling of “just living”.
What a lifetime achievement her 24-year stint at the wheel at the U/U has been.
I know they’ll have a great replacement, but it’ll never be the same . . . We’ll miss ya’, Wendy Fitting . . . that was some 24 years.
Gordon Baird is a local actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine, producer of the community access TV show “Gloucester Chicken Shack,” and member of Gloucester’s Unitarian Universalist congregation.