Sunday, May 16, 2010
New Face at Saugatuck Congregational Church
By James Lomuscio
The Rev. Howie Tobak: “We are alll God’s children.” Phyllis Groner for WestportNow.comFor the Rev. Howie Tobak, coming to Westport to serve as interim pastor of the Saugatuck Congregational Church, is the latest chapter in a United Church of Christ (UCC) ministry career that has spanned 23 years and 18 positions in more than a dozen states.
It also seems to be one he relishes most as he beams talking about how not only the congregation, but the community at large, has been welcoming.
“The town has been warmly welcoming, and I’ve never seen so much warmth like that,” says Tobak, 58, who replaces, or as he would prefer to say, “follows because no one could replace him,” the Rev. John Danner.
Tobak, who recently moved to town with his wife Betsy, also a UCC minister, from Norwich, Vt., reflected on his own spiritual journey and the role he hopes to play in Westport over the next year-and-a-half to two years.
He acknowledged that he follows giants in his post, from Danner to the long-term Rev. Theodore Hoskins, a town legend whose legacies include the soup kitchen and Westport’s homeless shelters.
“Today, it’s not just the homeless people who are suffering,” he says evaluating his role as head of a church with a time-honored reputation for social justice and helping the less fortunate. “It’s a stressful time for this community and for people that call this place home.
“All too many people are having the need to reassess their livelihoods, their future plans and their hopes and their dreams,” he said regarding the economic downturn.
What role can the church play?
“The church can be a welcoming environment where folks can come as they are,” Tobak said.
Historically, New England churches assumed the role of social services, a role that was later relegated to civic associations that had more resources, he said. Now, Tobak says, more churches are returning to service roles.
Tobak’s own spiritual journey and his decision to enter the ministry seems as complex as the world in which he grew up.
“I grew up poor in the Lower East Side, and we didn’t know about differences of religion, we just knew that we were poor,” he said.
His father, the son of an Othodox Jewish cantor, worked at a lower Manhattan post office. His mother, an Anglican, worked as a bank clerk.
Tobak described a diverse upbringing, spending much of his time when not in public school at the Hamilton Madison Settlement House, where he was one of the few white kids who played among African American and Puerto Rican children.
At age 10, he said he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, and his parents were told he would probably not live long into adulthood.
The Rev. Howie Tobak chats with some of his church members. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Phyllis Groner for WestportNow.com
He said his paternal grandfather told him that God had a purpose for giving him diabetes, and Tobak took that to mean that he should become an scientist to find a cure.
At 13, his family moved to the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, where he lived until 18 before leaving to study chemistry at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He attended graduate school at Ohio State University.
After graduation he spent seven years working in the chemical industry as a quality assurance manager for Purex in Ohio and Pennsylvania and later, Richardson Merrill in New Jersey.
But Tobak said it was something about his Judeo-Christian upbringing, a combination of his grandfather’s spirituality and the people that he met at the Settlement House that seemed to beckon him to the religious life.
In 1983 he entered the Bangor Theological Seminary, graduating and working as an authorized minister in UCC churches throughout the country until his official ordination in 1990.
Now in Westport, Tobak waxed philosophically as he mulled the spiritual, physical and economic needs facing the community in the throes of the economic crisis. He lauded Homes With Hope, formerly known as the Interfaith Housing Association.
“But it can’t address all the needs,” he said. “There are still needs in our community that need to be more fully engaged so that people can find their footing to become the people that God intended them to be.”
Regarding the religious diversity of Westport, Tobak called it an asset.
“There is only one God, and I don’t care what you call God,” he said. “We are all God’s children.”
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Note: WestportNow Publisher Gordon F. Joseloff is also First Selectman of Westport