CHATHAM – What a time to start a new job — during a pandemic.
But that is exactly what the Rev. Tracy Johnson did when she joined the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Chatham as its half-time minister on July 1.
“It has been interesting getting up to speed with the technology to hold people together in community when we can’t be physically together,” Johnson said during a telephone interview last week. These days everything church-related is done remotely on Zoom, from Sunday services to routine meetings. On Sundays, Johnson preaches from a spare room in her house where she has set up flowers on a table; a webcam across the room is trained at her. The church’s musical director Frank Toppa will be going alone into the church to play organ music which will be broadcast live from there during services.
As a half-time minister, Johnson will preach on two Sundays of the month. The other two Sundays will be covered by a guest speaker. Although she just began her formal affiliation with the church two months ago, she familiarized herself with the parishioners and the church when she covered for the Rev. Edmund Robinson’s sabbatical as he worked on a book about the nature of evil from January to April.
Robinson retired from the church on Jan. 1 after 11 years as its minister. While membership stabilized at about 140 in 2014, a period of decline in the church’s attendance, membership and finances followed, due to various factors such as Chatham’s demographics and the challenges posed by the church’s location in a summer community. The church currently has about 100 parishioners, down from its high of about 200 in 1996.
“I will be with the Meeting House for a couple of years, at least initially,” Johnson says. “They’re in a place of transition.” As well as preaching twice a month, Johnson will involve herself in the life of the church, serving on various committees, and “all the workings.”
“I love it,” she says. “They’re very lovely people who care deeply for one another.”
The Universalists first came to Chatham in 1822. The group’s first meeting house, built in the 1850s, burned down and was replaced by a new church on Main Street in 1879. That congregation dissolved in 1954 and sold its church to St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in 1961. The current fellowship was established in 1986 and its 37 members met at the Creative Arts Center on Crowell Road. In 1996 the group bought the Christian Science Church at 819 Main St. The Greek Revival-style building was erected in the 1960s at the gateway to downtown Chatham.
Johnson and her husband Chuck, who live in Brewster, moved to the Cape about eight years ago after they retired from their jobs in Connecticut. They are the parents of an adult daughter who lives in Tennessee.
And then there’s Emma, the Johnson’s rescue pup, a hound mix who, like most pets, is enjoying lots of face time with her humans as they work from home during the pandemic.
“She’s right here with me now,” Johnson says. “She’s my loyal companion.”
Prior to retiring, Johnson worked for the state of Connecticut in the prison and parole system for 26 years as a case manager. When the couple moved to Brewster she was still pursuing her master of divinity degree at Andover Newton Theological School. Earlier she earned a degree in human services, a B.A. in women’s studies, and an M.A. with a focus in spirituality from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She is a minister in Full Fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. She is also active in the Nauset Interfaith Association on the Lower and Outer Cape and chairs its refugee support team.
“The ministry has always felt to me like a way of being in the world,” she says. She approached her work in the prison system as a vocation, not a job. In that capacity she helped people to become empowered and return back to society in a more productive way.
Johnson is a woman of diverse interests. She knits and weaves and is a certified master Reiki practitioner.
Prior to joining the Meeting House, Johnson served as community minister with the nonprofit WE CAN in Harwich Port for five years. When she had finished her training, she asked herself if she should become a parish or a community minister. “WE CAN felt like the perfect fit,” she says. But serving as affiliate community minister with the First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist congregation and doing sabbatical coverage at a couple of churches reminded her “how much I liked parish work as well.”
While the pandemic throws up all kinds of challenges, it can also be a time that allows contemplation in a slower world. “We feel like we have this time that we’ve been given to reflect,” she says. It is a time to figure out what the church community will look like on the other side of the pandemic.
The Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Chatham holds one-hour worship services remotely via Zoom each Sunday at 10:30 a.m. To register for the Zoom link, email communications coordinator Karen Murdoch at Karen@ChathamUU.com.