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A new face is looking out from the pulpit these days at Westminster Presbyterian Church. And it’s not necessarily the face you’d expect. A few weeks ago, having recently arrived in Auburn, I was running some errands when someone asked what had brought me to the Finger Lakes area. After I told her that I had been called as Westminster’s new pastor, she looked at me quizzically and said — perhaps with a little more candor than intended — “Oh, I guess I usually think of pastors as old and wise.”

I’m neither, I suppose.

It’s a comment I’ll probably be hearing a lot. And it’s true: I am young. Probably not as young as I look, but still young. I’m 31 years old, and that’s young for the church these days. Almost one in four Americans identify with no religion at all, and that number jumps up to 35 percent when talking with my generation of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996). Even fewer go to church on a regular basis. At its best, church is regarded by many with indifference — useful perhaps for its nursery school and special holidays, a gathering of decent but not particularly exciting people. At its worst, church is seen as (and unfortunately often is) an insular and stuffy social club built on the back of economic and racial divisions, a bulwark that has hurt and excluded, an anti-science, anti-equality, anti-thinking (anti-fun?) relic of the past.

So what am I — a young person passionate about social justice and the arts, the son of public school teachers, an ally of the LGBTQ community (and a proud Eagle Scout), a feminist and community organizer, an avid hiker, a fan of Bob Dylan, Dar Williams and Mumford & Sons — doing here?

I could say I’ve been called by God, which is true (I hope). But we in the church use that phrase so much that I’m not sure we still know what it means.

I suppose the simplest answer is that I’m here because I’m in love. And people do crazy things for love.

I’m in love with a scarred and messy God who took on flesh to walk among us, who suffers when we suffer, who stands with the poor and the abused, who will turn the world upside down to find us who are lost. I’m in love with a God I met first as a boy scrambling through woods and then later as a young man kneeling at the side of a hospital bed or as a chaplain in a prison. I’m in love with a God who loved and knew me, without condition, before I could even say the word love.

I’m also in love with a church — Westminster — which, while by no means perfect, is eager to swing wide its doors and embrace this community. I’m in love with a church that you can call home, a place where you’ll know you’re wanted and cared for, a group of people who want to use our God-given brains and intuition as we wrestle with some of life’s hardest questions. I’m in love with a church that invites me, through music and worship, through conversation and mission, through children’s and youth programming, to live life more passionately and for the sake of others.

There’s no doubt that Westminster has a long way to go before it achieves this vision; I’m not sure we’ll ever completely get there. After all, we’re just people — flawed, messy, beautiful people. But this church has a fire in its bones to be more ... and, in a society that asks no more of us than what’s in our wallet, I admire that.

I’m also beginning to fall in love with the community of Auburn — with its neighboring lakes and woods, with a hardy and welcoming people who continue to dream and labor for a better life. They dream in spite of devastating losses, embodied in the husks of the once buzzing factories and manufacturing plants that pepper Auburn’s landscape. This community has lost jobs, has lost people, has faced truly hard times, and yet, I have encountered more smiles, more love, more strength than I can recount.

And now I get to be a part of all that. This place is going to change me. It’s going to show me God.

And I guess that’s a pretty good reason to be here.

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The Rev. Patrick David Heery is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, and the former editor of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Heery lives in Auburn with his wife, Jenna, and their two dogs, spending much of their free time hiking the countryside.

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