Memorial Tribute to the Rev. Nevin Kirk

The Rev. Nevin Kirk, a United Church of Christ minister and resident of Craigville and Centerville, Massachusetts died April 27 at age 93. I had the honor of presiding at his memorial service at South Congregational UCC in Centerville. Here are my words of remembrance of his life and ministry.

We don’t usually think of beaches as having pews but at Craigville’s Association Beach on a summer afternoon the seating patterns as fixed as those in any sanctuary I have known. I can close my eyes and tell you where most people will be sitting on the beach on a sunny afternoon in July or August.

For the past fifty or so years the area just south and west of the CBA Snack Bar has belonged to Nevin Kirk.

For some on the beach “their” pew is a sort of buffer, a sanctuary marking off one’s space from that of others. But Nevin’s space was different. It was the center of a complex, but open web of relationships. Nevin’s pew was a public space.

“Hey, McKinneys. ‘ Beautiful day at the beach. Glad you made it down. How are you doing today?”

If Nevin knew you (and if he didn’t, he would soon find out who you are), he was your greeter and your usher. For many of us, whatever our particular religious faith, he was also our pastor. That little “How are you doing today?” was more than a well-practiced script. It was one human being reaching out to another because he genuinely cared for those who shared a beach, a community, or similar interests and concerns.

Those of us who knew Nevin Kirk on Cape Cod knew we shared him with the churches he served in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Springfield and Queens. We knew that in part because we met so many of his former church members gathered on the porch of Lancaster cottage alongside Craigville’s green. Unlike a lot of our homes, as was true on the beach, the Kirk cottage was not a fortress marking off the family’s private space. It was an open and friendly and public space. “Stop,” he’d say to passers-by. “Grab a seat and come and meet our friends.”

Nevin took on difficult assignments as a minister. He started a new church in Allentown and led churches in Springfield and Queens that were at the forefront of urban ministry challenges. Rooted in the traditions of the Evangelical and Reformed branch of the United Church of Christ, he was a missionary to us Congregationalists. For some of us, Nevin Kirk and Pierre Vuilleumier were the first Protestant ministers we knew who regularly wore the clerical collar!

Nevin Kirk, the pastor, was a bridge-builder. He was as comfortable on the beach as in the Tabernacle. His ministry took him from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific to the inner cities of our own nation. He was as comfortable teaching tennis to young people as he was preaching and leading hymn-sings on Sunday morning. In his years on the Conference Center staff, he looked out for lonely guests and staff. In the incredibly diverse community of Richmond Hill he welcomed new immigrants from all over the world.

Nevin was an early and passionate advocate for Craigville’s environment. We wouldn’t have the septic system that saved several Craigville homes had it not been for his perseverance and salesmanship. A few years ago Craigville named him as Red Lily Pond’s “First Steward” for his efforts to save our ponds.

But just as important, Nevin Kirk was also a “First Steward” of Craigville’s social ecology. For those who don’t live there Craigville may look to be an idyllic place where everybody is happy just to be there and to be together. Alas, Craigville is not always a happy place. It’s a human place. It falls upon a few people to build bridges across a lot of divides. Some are ideological, some are personal, some are structural, some are even religious. I can’t say this of many people, but I can think of no-one who didn’t regard Nevin Kirk as a blessing in their lives.

I said to the Kirk family the other day that one of things I most appreciate about their dad was his outlandish and consistent liberalism. From his days as a civil rights activist south of the Mason-Dixon line, through the movements for social justice for racial minorities, women and LGBT people; in his forthright opposition to the Vietnam war and on other foreign policy issues, Nevin embodied the prophetic side of the Judeo-Christian tradition. His churches sometimes lost members because of his outspokenness on social issues, but he never wavered. But neither did he write people off who disagreed with him. I’m sure there are people here today who would disagree with Nevin Kirk on many things, but who loved him nonetheless and count him as a brother for a lifetime.

Nevin was the patriarch of a large and complex family who knew and loved him as husband, father, grandfather and companion in life.

Like Nevin, Lizzie Kirk’s impact as the Tabernacle’s music director is a lasting one. She is remembered through the Eizabeth Kirk memorial music series each summer.

Challenging days lie ahead for the Kirk family and our hearts go out to each of them today. Philip, you have been your father’s principal caregiver for much of your life. Tom, you watch over our little village like a hawk all year round and we thank you for that. Mary and John and Elaine, and the next generation of the Kirk family: you know that Craigville will always be a home for you. I know I speak for all who are gathered here today in saying that we will be here for you just as Nevin has always been here for us.

Thanks be to God for the life and ministry of Nevin Miller Kirk!