SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — It looked like the Garden of Eden was right before his eyes when Rev. Fred Evenson first toured South County and saw a desire about to be fulfilled.
“I felt as though we had entered an idyllic neighborhood that was too good to be true,” said Peace Dale Congregational Church’s newly selected pastor during an interview recently.
“When we were driving around house hunting and seeing people waving hello, it was just immediately clear to me that I had made the right decision in terms of finding a more welcoming church and community,” said Evenson.
In the church offices, a search committee also found him the right choice for their spiritual needs and church mission work. Deliverance for both was something each had been seeking.
In this dance of church politics and congregations’ sometimes quirky desires for the right kind of floor partner, ministers need to have the right moves. And as in any relationship, the blessings of chemistry can bind or break them, especially when church and community support is needed for the clergy’s core personal ministry.
For Evenson, Peace Dale Congregational Church is giving him the chance to continue his commitment to feeding the poor and helping house the homeless. It also embraces his direction for welcoming all people, including all gender identities and sexual orientations.
Also important, he believes that the South County community can embrace his desire for his children to grow up with robust religious diversity ranging from Catholic and Congregational to Jewish and Bible-centered cultures of worship.
“We were looking for the whole package,” he said in a recent interview. “The church is all of those things here and the community, in our experience so far, is also very welcoming and the educational opportunity is exceptional.”
Eve Tucker Keenan, president of the Peace Dale church’s congregation, said that Evenson was also the whole package for the church.
“Fred, God bless him, had a green light through every step by the selection committee. Everybody voted yes, nobody else even came close,” she said about the review of 43 other applicants that the committee screened.
When evaluating the church’s needs for a new pastor, the committee sought someone who could deliver engaging worship services, was committed to outreach in this mission-driven church, had a strong foundation in Christian education and possessed he abilities to develop leaders within this independently styled religious organization.
In the Congregational tradition, the committee recommended him to the entire congregation for ratification.
A Warm Welcome
That feeling of a fit came in part from scenes of waving bystanders during a fall visit with his wife, Suzan, as they met personally with church leadership, other members of the congregation while looking over the community, Evenson said.
”There were some kids sitting in the middle of the street, playing, and they had to move so we could pass,” he said about random sites during an impromptu tour. “Rather than being irritated for having to move, they smiled and waved very warmly, welcoming us to their neighborhood,” he recalled.
Then they saw people, walking with their children, who smiled and waved as they drove by, he added.
“I could see the surprise on my wife’s face as we were met with such friendliness. But it was an authentic warmth of welcome that was a healing balm after coming from a community in Utah where people were more apt to stare than wave,” he said.
He also acknowledged feeling in Utah a certain chill in some social circumstances, especially in schools with his children because their Christian beliefs contrasted with those in the majority who are members of The Church of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.
“If your kids are not LDS, it’s hard to break into that community and be welcomed. The church was very welcoming, but the schools not so much,” he said, echoing a sense of frustration, anger and forgiveness that had developed inside him.
His desire to be among and work with a welcoming and inclusive social fabric stem from watching his late mother, Clair, teach English as a second language to adults from other countries seeking citizenship.
Acceptance of all individuals also created his strong beliefs in social justice as a minister, he added.
“So how are we, as a church, caring for the poor?” he asked in a rhetorical way in which a pastor torques up a sermon calling a congregation into action. “Those who society is kicking to the curb, how are we, as a church, caring for those people?”
An Apron-Wearing Minister
That caring and activism takes many forms. One is calling together people committed to helping provide food and feeding the hungry and poor. That kind of pastoral feeding is as important as any message from the pulpit, he said.
“It’s important to me that we feed people, not just spiritually, but physically,” he said. Peace Dale Congregational offers a sit-down meal every Wednesday evening from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Anyone is welcome and dinner is prepared and served by teams of volunteers from the church and the community.
“I feel called to be at an apron-wearing church,” he said, adding, “Who you eat with says a lot about who you are.”
His blue apron says, Be The Church – Protect the environment, Care for the poor, Forgive often, Reject racism, Fight for the powerless, Share earthly and spiritual resources, Embrace diversity, Love God, Enjoy this life.
Beyond feeding people, he also shares in the church mission of providing shelter for the homeless and those needing transitional housing. This includes a lease of its North Road parsonage to Welcome House for those services and the congregation also provides other support, including fundraising.
Helping others, especially those in need and seeking refuge in religion during troubling times, have long been centering ideals in his life, explained Evenson whose pastoral experiences are rooted in children’s and youth ministry and he is also a trained chaplain. He earned a master’s in divinity degree from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
“As a kid, I couldn’t stand seeing starving kids in Ethiopia. We needed to do something about it,” said the 47-year-old. As a young boy it awakened within him a realization about injustice that he had food and others didn’t, he added.
“I think I’ve always been that prophetic voice. If I see an injustice, I speak up about it,” he said. He described himself as shy, but having a desire to stand up for those unprotected or in the minority.
This same conviction today takes him into the realm of eco-justice debates about climate change and dealing with these matters. The increased burdens from neglect fall on everyone, including the poor who often cannot handle more demands on meager incomes and stressed lives, he said.
Environmental science was his undergraduate major at the University of Nevada, Reno, and he spent some summers fighting fires for the U.S. Forestry Service. Evenson said he wants to start discussions at Peace Dale Congregational about becoming a “green church.”
Called environmental stewardship, a “green church” cultivates various approaches to thinking and acting about environmentalism through theology and worship, church activities, advocacy and interfaith, ecumenical, or secular activities.
“Not only on a local level, but on a wide level, what can we do to have a significant impact? That will be a conversation we will be having going forward,” he said.
“Jesus was more focused on how we are living in the here and now rather than the afterlife. We focus less on whether we believe in X, Y and Z and more on how we are following Jesus,” he said.