David Helfer is a quiet man who often says he is the shortest man in the room.
But when he is standing in front of more than 100 people in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County, Helfer uses his gift of preaching and connecting with others to be confident and spread his message.
“I push pretty hard,” he said about his approach during sermons. “I don’t tread gently. I’m a gentle guy, but I juxtapose that by pushing quietly and very hard.”
Helfer is the new minister of the growing Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County, located at 27 North Road in Peace Dale, where he began in late August.
“They say that a minister knows when they find their congregation and I have found my congregation,” he said.
He described his certainty by the powerful synergy he says he feels between him and the congregation, which deeply moves him.
It’s a lot like dating, Helfer joked.
“You know very quickly how things are going to proceed,” he said.
Over the last two months, things have been smooth for Helfer as he began a new part of his life in South County.
Helfer is a second-career minister. Before going to seminary in 2009, he was in the environmental field for 20 years. Later he was a minister in Wellesley, Massachusetts, before arriving in Peace Dale.
Rhode Island is the geography in his heart now, he said.
As a self-described progressive, Helfer said he wants to continue moving society in a positive direction.
“[Colleagues] and I tend to feel it’s our job to spread the voice of those without a microphone, or those without a voice or those who are marginalized,” he said. “I wanted to bring a progressive voice [to Peace Dale].”
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County wanted someone who could guide them to deepen their faith and to reach the community, and Helfer felt he was the one to do that.
The church has about 150 members, and about 110 to 120 people attend his sermons every Sunday. Helfer said the church is growing from a family church to large size church but he wants to see a steady growth.
One way to do that, he said, is to reach out to students at the University of Rhode Island to create a connection for a Unitarian Universalist audience. He hopes to reach others through community office hours that he plans to spread throughout the town.
“I’d like to have coffee with people for a couple of hours to consider, talk and celebrate and to bring the community together,” Helfer said.
More often than not, Helfer said he can connect with people through conversations and by starting a relationship. His favorite part of being a minister, aside from preaching, is the relationships he can make with people, especially during pivotal moments in their life like retirements, pregnancy, illness or death.
“[Ministers] get to walk with someone in these precious moments of their lives and that’s immense,” he said.
Helfer said he has witnessed the power this can have on someone during significant times.
Before losing his first wife a decade ago to cancer, Helfer sat by her side while she was in hospice care. He said being in her presence during this difficult time changed his life for the better.
Those moments led Helfer to question if there was more he could be doing with his life to contribute to society.
“That end-of-life experience opened up a possibility for me that there was more than the secular way I had previously understood the world,” he said.
Helfer grew up Jewish, but said he only understood it in terms of its holy days and “Jewish deli food.”
A Unitarian Universalist church is a non-creedal church and does not require a statement of faith for someone to be a member.
“We’re not telling [people] what the belief system is, which can be hard,” he said. “It can be complicated for people. But we really tell people, ‘You’re here to spiritually deepen and enrich, and your journey is your journey.’”
Some of the members of his church are atheists and agnostic and others come from many faith traditions.
“What we agree on is that we have principles and purposes, which guide us,” he said.
Helfer wants to make sure he leaves the world a better place.
People who join Unitarian Universalist Congregations tend to be very social justice oriented and are very active in creating a more just society, Helfer said. This is where he likes using his strong and aggressive approach during sermons.
Helfer used this approach while talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and worked aggressively with members of the group to understand why the movement matters and why it pertains to a “largely white congregation in a largely white area”.
It is important for Helfer to inspire his members to think about what their roles are in society and question what they can do to make things more just.
Maybe the hardest thing for Helfer to get used to is the idea that change happens slowly, but at least now he said he feels content knowing that he is making a difference.
“This church is a growing progressive voice in the faith tradition to me, at a time in the world when it seems necessary to come together to look for answers when the world feels a little more fragile, and we welcome people that are searching,” he said.