YORK, Maine — Rev. Anna Copeland looks back on her six years of ministry at First Parish Church with a certain humbleness. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have walked with these people. This is a praying church. It takes the Bible very seriously and tries to discern how to be faithful in our time, which is why it’s an absolute joy to be pastor here.”
But after six years leading the congregation, she is preparing to retire from full-time ministry this fall and will be ending her time as pastor of the church. Her final church service will be Sept. 23.
She and her husband, Ellis, will return to Allens Park, Colorado, where they own a retreat center. It was actually at the Copeland Center, as it is called, where she expected to start a new chapter of her life back in 2010 following years of working as a pastor and teacher.
“I was leading a retreat there with colleagues from the United Church of Christ who were from the East Coast. One of them came up to me and said, ‘If you have one more church in you, I want you to consider York, Maine.’ I had never heard of York before, but these are the God moments that have shaped my life,” she said.
She came to First Parish, she said, as the 30th settled pastor in a church with a history going back 350 years. “Every generation has the honor of doing what is given them to do. So I can only talk about this particular chapter” — a chapter shaped by outreach into the York community, the region and state and the globe at a time when she said people are increasingly conflicted and divided.
“Families have been deeply divided since the last election and I had to figure out how to pastor in a reality when people didn’t trust each other. There’s a distrust of ‘the other,’ whoever that is, whether we’re different culturally, religiously or by nationality,” she said.
“Because we believe in a God that loves all people, how can we create opportunities to learn in a safe space about people who are most different from us and from whom we have nothing to fear. In the end there are concerns we all share — love of family, love of homeland, a decent job, education and to be safe.”
With outreach to others as its core, the church has expanded its mission, she said. Internationally, the church has entered partnerships with an education and medical care organization called Common Hope in Guatemala, with a group called Daisy’s Children that works to provide clean water and food to children and families in Honduras and with churches in Cuba. “Now that we have these partnerships, they will continue and expand,” she said.
But it is locally and regionally where this sense of purpose is perhaps most felt — in ways, she said, both hidden and very much in the open.
Copeland has been an active participant in York’s ministerium, comprised of all the spiritual leaders from York. Through this process, First Parish collaborated with St. George’s Episcopal and the United Methodist Church of York-Ogunquit to sponsor a discussion series on race, suggested by Methodist minister Rev. Effie McAvoy. She and the church answered the call of St. George’s Rev. Calvin Sanborn’s call in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida to offer a service of remembrance for the victims.
First Parish members along with York Diversity Forum spearheaded a series of panel discussions with faith leaders not only from York but including a Jewish rabbi, Muslim imam, Greek Orthodox priest, Unitarian minister, a Quaker and a Native American elder.
“It’s been a serendipitous gift that in these past six years, we have deepened and strengthened our collaboration as colleagues,” she said. “We trust each other’s faith. We’re all connected to a higher power and we’re all working for the same team, and we trust that. It shouldn’t be notable that we have a remarkable collaboration because we’re all rowing on the same team together.”
The ministerium and their congregations works closely with York Community Service Association, to provide any help possible to people who find themselves in precarious positions — both through a fund to which all the churches contribute as well as small funds set aside within church budgets.
“Someone who needs help will come to YCSA, and Michelle [Surdoval, the director] will say, ‘They need $900 to get on their feet. We have $350 we can put toward this. Can you help?’ Someone will say, ‘I can do $200 this month,’ or ‘I can do $150,’ and before long the money has been raised,” she said.
She said she hopes her legacy for this particular chapter of the church will be that she helped First Parish, “whatever it may have been, to become a church in mission. Its members understand the need to collaborate, to create safe space and give a path of hope in these challenging times.”
Last June, the congregation voted by a margin of 95 percent to become an Open and Affirming Church, that welcomes “people of every age, marital status, family structure, faith background, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, racial and cultural identity and socioeconomic status.”
Copeland said she’s most proud of the final sentence of the covenant: “We honor the guiding principle that discrimination is incompatible with Christ’s message of unconditional love.”
Her last Sunday will be on Sept. 23, but she said she’s not retiring, just “opening a new chapter.” She intends to look for opportunities to pastor on a short-term basis in locations around the world, and next year will spend two months as a pastor-in-residence in Mexico.
She and her husband will return to the Copeland Institute, where they will offer retreats. Not only will they offer spiritual retreats “across religious traditions” and life coaching, they have also started an initiative called Healthy Habits for Life (https://healthyhabitsforlife.net), for people interested in “transforming personal health” at all levels. She also wants to spend time with her nine grandchildren, seven of whom are under age 11.
“I will always be grateful to God for letting me serve this place. I love it here so much. I am going to grieve deeply,” she said. “But the bench is wide and deep in this church. They don’t depend on me, because they know who they are and what they offer.”
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