One of the joys of the “new technology” is that Facebook notifies me that a friend is having a birthday, This is for a life-long hero of mine (and a friend, though we don’t cross paths nearly enough). Today, Tuesday July 30, Peter Wells turns 66 years old and I wanted to say a few words about this incredible man….
In the late end of August, 1975, my life changed forever as I approached the driveway to the circle and flag at Deering Conference Center in New Hampshire. When I arrived I was a slightly depressed kid from the city who was starting to find his way around the suburbs still ringing with bullying of Junior High still ringing in my ears. I don’t know how others perceived me, but I felt geeky, awkward and half-dead inside, wondering what I was doing at a supposed “leadership conference”. Though buoyed by new friends on the way up (I think Peter Russell and Ann Piaget), and offered the chance to attend by my Youth Pastor, Bob Kyte, I felt out of place in humanity before I arrived.
Within a day, I had found myself part of a “living group” with two very nice people as leaders — Peter and (I believe) Becky Johnson and four or five new potential friends. By day three or so, we were jumping up and down on cots yelling, at the top of our lungs, “I am somebody! You are somebody! Together we are somebody!”. Peter ran around in a costume, throwing “elf dust” on people, and yelling “navel!” as he showed us his navel and ran away. (Hey, it was a different day). In addition to that, he did a great impression of Grover and Oscar from Sesame Street and led worship with us, but everybody at Deering could lead worship. And so it went. I had found a new friend. I knew instinctively I could trust him in my new “fully alive” state and I remember having a few deep, meaningful conversations that only a 15 year old could have. Peter listened, said wise, positive things and I grew some more — in ability to feel the Spirit — as I opened up to new emotions and new ideas.
At the end of the week, someone came up to him and said, “Reverend Wells, you have a phone call”. I howled with laughter until my stomach hurt and when I calmed down, I explained that he couldn’t possibly be a minister. He explained that, in fact, he was. At that minute, I knew what I wanted to be. “If that guy can be a minister, so can I. That’s what I want to do.” Spiritually and mentally, I never went back. I remember going home and my mother saying (a few months later) “That’s the way life is”, but I knew differently. I had experienced a world that could also exist and did. No longer did I have to settle for what Bruce Hornsby would later say “That’s just the way it is”.
Later, Peter worked with the United Church Youth Council in Massachusetts and he continued to show us we could be Someone. Besides that, worship could be meaningful to the people we served — people our own age. Community could be created — and it could be meaningful for actual people. This wasn’t congregants, it wasn’t old, frozen pious types that we assumed went to church It was us. We could make God matter to our peers.
In my 20’s, and I was hitch-hiking up and down the East coast, I stopped by to see Peter somewhere in Connecticut and — later — in Newark (pronounced “New Ark”), Delaware. He put up with my “dropping by” without warning and had the courtesy to answer all my questions about life, ministry, new church starts — all of interest to me. He did it with compassion and care, even if it was late. As I was trying to figure out what life and religion meant to me, Peter was there.
In my early 30’s, I served a few churches in Rochester, New York. During my time there, people who knew Peter would mention him frequently as the good man I knew he was. The people there were smart. I would hear his name bandied about at the Springfield Pastor’s Study Conference.
In my late 40’s, Peter returned to Western Massachusetts as an area minister and we spoke more about a church I had led in coffeehouses near Boston.
In my 50’s, Peter and I have once again reconnected, through Facebook, and I love to see the links he shares, the ideas he quotes, the things he does with his ministry, and who he supports. Peter has the incredible ability to spot an underdog at a mile away and support them personally before others even figure out there’s an issue. His love of justice and his compassion, interest, and concern for others leads him to get personally involved in issues, in much the same way that I think Jesus did.
This year, Peter announced that he would retire. I know folks are preparing for it now, but when the day comes, there will be much sadness and weeping because such a great man will leave the field. Actually, it’s not as if Peter could ever really leave the field of ministry and Christianity without being actually dead. God’s Spirit lives within Peter and will call him somewhere every day to do the things that Peter does.
Peter Wells is, in my eyes, the epitome of the very best of my denomination, the United Church of Christ, and one of the major reasons that I am UCC. He opens spaces where justice and compassion can abound — whether it is in individuals o churches. Peter has cared for the people that I think we’re called, as Christians, to care about — people that others don’t even notice. Though radical in some ways, Peter is not pushy. He was at New Ark for about 20 years or so. He has booth seen and led the “slow arc towards justice”. As a person in power, I have never seen Peter throw his weight around or “play politics” within the church. That’s not his way. As you can see from my stories of Peter, he is fully human and brings out the full humanity of others.His humor, playfulness, compassion, and love of God shines through. I have never heard him say a racist, sexist, hierarchical, or homophobic thing in my life. While I’m sure his theology supports it, I get the feeling that Peter doesn’t see people that way, if only because that would interfere with his seeing people for who they are as individuals.
Peter, as I know personally, and have seen throughout my career, has the ability to create space where people can grow, emotionally and spiritually. From there, growing people begin to create new and welcoming places where Christ is active and alive in their own time. Within this welcoming comes compassion. Compassion leads to calls for justice and the church becomes a church seeking justice in the world. Without the need to control or play politics with people’s lives, the church begins to feel justice in its midst. People’s lives are touched and the church — alive and active in the world — thrives. More than that, though, Jesus’ work is accomplished in the world.
May those of us who have been touched by Peter’s ministry and friendship use the gifts that he has shown us through his life and his ministry, Let us embrace the possibilities as we celebrate Peter Wells’ 66th birthday.