You know the Stowe Community Church, with its infinitely photographed steeple and mountainous background, is a different house of worship when it hosts a “Blessing of the Costumes” Halloween event led by a Grim Reaper, a zombie, a cowgirl, Mary Poppins, a gaggle of princesses and two Star Wars characters.
Bonus: the boy leading the faithful in a recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” while dressed as Kylo Ren was the new pastor’s kid.
Rev. Dan Haugh, who this week entered his third month as pastor, said it just might be possible that the way to get Gen X-ers and millennials to come back into the fold is to have the children lead the way.
“We’ve got a really dynamic program for kids, and we’re growing that,” Haugh said during an interview on All Saints Day. “It’s gotten to the point where kids want to go on Sunday mornings, and they’re actually bringing their parents.”
Before coming to Stowe at the end of the summer, Haugh, 42, served as pastor at Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich, Conn. Before that, he was an associate pastor for — wait for it — youth and young adults at the American Church in Paris. His wife, Lauretta, teaches at Morristown Elementary School.
He agrees “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie.
Haugh was raised with religion, with his father trying different types of Protestant faiths, and perhaps that’s what shaped Haugh’s ministry. All three of the churches where he’s worked as pastor are classified as ecumenical, a concept where Christians from various denominations come together under one roof.
This concept serves a heavily touristed town like Stowe well, where church-going visitors unfamiliar with the worship options in town can likely find a fellowship to their liking. Haugh said at a recent Saturday service he welcomed visitors from 18 different states in the span of a few hours.
“Ecumenical churches also tend to be very more open, affirming and interfaith as well,” Haugh said. “They’ll have a lot more collaboration and interfaith relationships.”
That mindset made Haugh feel right at home in Stowe, which has a strong Interfaith Coalition made up of leaders from different houses of worship, several weeks before he even moved to Stowe. He was used to that kind of intermingled structure in Greenwich, which had 35 churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship.
He said the key to working together as religions is recognizing they all don’t agree on things, and it comes as no surprise to anyone who has lived through 9/11 or the rise of white supremacy that Christians don’t always see eye to eye with Muslims or Jews.
He said a rabbi friend once told him it’s best for Haugh to be even more authentically Christian.
“He said, ‘If you invite me to a service at your church, and it’s a Christian church, it should be a Christian service,’” he said. “He would invite me and my family to some of their services, and they were authentically Jewish.”
Church, the counterculture
Vermont is among the nation’s least-religious states, and the dwindling numbers of millennials and Gen-Zers makes it even more secular than the rest of America, which Haugh noted is still quite faith-based. That’s especially compared to Europe, which has many more centuries of pushing back against the power of a far-reaching and oppressive central church.
But Haugh points out that a lot of things that were thought of progressive at the time in America, such as abolition in the 19th century and the civil rights movement in the 20th, stemmed from the church. He notes that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister whose dad renamed him after the Martin Luther of old who sparked the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century.
“Historically, all of these meetings were in churches. They were led by churches and people sometimes lose sight of that,” Haugh said. “Yes, it was a civic movement, but it was a civic movement that 100 percent came from religious ideology, and a deep sense of faith.”
Americans are more sharply divided than ever over everything, whether it’s politics or science, and with the rise of Trumpism overlapping a global pandemic, often the dividing line dovetails with the dividing line between evangelical or fundamentalist Christians or progressive interfaith churches.
“One part of my ministry, and calling as a pastor, is to provide a different narrative, where science is welcome, and where all people are welcome,” Haugh said. “Some of our visitors, because of the states that some of them come from, didn’t agree with our policies of wearing masks indoors or at services, so we had to politely say, ‘Well, this is what we’re doing here. We’re trying to follow what we believe to be true.’”
But even the most conversative person of faith has a little bit of counterculture in them.
“Sometimes a message of fate is countercultural,” Haugh said. “When the culture talks about individualism or consumerism, our faith actually needs to stand against that.”
Haugh said it can be dicey to even be perceived as delivering a political message from the pulpit, whether it’s about climate change or vaccines, which a sizable portion of the population doesn’t believe in, or whether it’s dedicating resources to battle substance abuse or poverty, which a sizable portion of the population doesn’t agree with.
That’s partly why he thinks back to something one his mentors, Scott Herr, at American Church in Paris, said to him.
“He often told me, ‘Dan, preach the text, and let the text speak for itself. When you do that, you will often find that it ends up speaking on those issues, or makes it clear,’” Haugh said. “I mean, it’s hard to preach about the Sermon on the Mount and not end up seeing how it does impact and should impact social issues.”