Reimers retiring after using spirit to embrace community
Published: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 5:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 5:08 p.m.
In 1974, the United Church of Gainesville had little to offer a new minister — no building, little money and a small, shrinking congregation after a year and a half without a full-time minister.
Tribute on Sunday
What: Service in honor of the retiring Revs. Larry and Sandy Reimer
When: 10 a.m. Sunday
Where: University Auditorium, 333 Newell Drive on the University of Florida campus
What it did have to offer was a congregation interested in social justice and an open exploration of spirituality codified in a compact that called the church to worship God "however known."
That was enough for an idealistic young graduate of Yale Divinity School who came of age in the era of anti-war protests and the civil rights movement, and he brought his wife and two young sons to Gainesville to lead UCG — a congregation of the United Church of Christ.
Since then, the Rev. Larry Reimer — later joined in ministry by his wife, Sandy — has individually and as a church taken a lead in advocating for gay rights and providing housing and health care for the poor. Reimer has appeared on national news broadcasts to protest the death penalty and, more recently, to speak against the burning of the Quran by a local minister.
During the Reimers' tenure, the church has grown from 75 members meeting in borrowed space to 700 members and a multi-building complex at 1624 NW Fifth Ave. in the College Park neighborhood.
The Revs. Larry and Sandy Reimer, both 68, are retiring after 38 years. The church is marking the occasion with a special service at 10 a.m. Sunday at University Auditorium.
Back in 1974, Catherine Berg was the first UCG member to talk to Larry Reimer. Search committee members were cold-calling candidates, and she was given his dossier since she and Reimer both had attended Yale.
"It was an incredible leap of faith for him to come to a place with no facilities, very few people and not much money, no endowment," she said. "But we had this great hunger and this great vision of what kind of a community we wanted to be. Given his creativity and his wanting to make a difference, wanting to address the great issues of the time, this was in fact what we had to offer Larry and why he came."
Reimer said he did not think he would find a congregation that would allow him to practice the kind of ministry he wanted to practice — engaging in significant social justice — or even hold services with guitar, multimedia shows and liturgical dance.
"I'd say half my class was basically run out of the churches they'd served," he said.
"The church has never told me there was something I couldn't try because we'd never done it that way before. I think both of us would say the only limits we've had in this church have been due to our own creativity and energy."
Sandy Reimer said they've had to dig deeper over time to come up with new and creative ways to keep services fresh.
"You can't preach the same sermon on Easter and Christmas Eve for 38 years in a row," she said.
Sundays have seen Larry offering his narrative style of sermons fueled by what Sandy called the voice of action, playing hymns he wrote on guitar or playing trumpet in the church's Dixieland band, the Hogtown Strutters.
Sandy brought a more introspective, spiritual approach.
From continuing education and travel sabbaticals, they have brought back Celtic theology from Scotland, Taize from France and Native American rituals from New Mexico.
Recurring events include the annual pet blessing, humor Sunday, a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and the gathering of waters with water from church members' travels. Larry has even performed fire eating and made flames appear from a Bible, while Sandy has tap danced and flown in on a wire for a sermon about angels.
They have performed hundreds of weddings, baptisms and memorial services, each one personalized for the people involved.
The church has added associate ministers Andy Bachmann and Vince Amlin to handle more Sundays and other duties in the church.
The variety has led ushers to tell visitors "it's not like this every Sunday" so often that a crossstitch of the expression was hung in the sanctuary.
Sandy said it has been a "huge blessing" to be at UCG for so long.
"There are children here that we held the day they were born who we later baptized, who we later gave them their first Bibles and confirmed them as church members and then officiated at their weddings who now have children of their own," she said.
Sandy's role as senior minister seemed unlikely when the Reimers first arrived. She grew up in a church that did not allow women to serve as ministers, but she also did not want to be stuck filling the traditional role of the minister's wife.
"In Larry's initial contract, there is a clause that says the minister's wife shall not have to do anything that is not of her own choosing," she said.
What she chose to do was to work with the youth group and eventually run the youth program. Over the years, she felt more called to ministry, handling church administration and coordinating programs. She became a licensed minister in 1990 and was ordained in 2009.
About the time she became licensed, Larry started a process that led the church to become open and affirming of gay and lesbian members.
"We had a number of lesbian and gay members here — it was kind of unspoken, and suddenly there was a couple, two women who were clearly a couple — and I thought we need to be talking about this," she said.
After a year of discussions and speakers to explore what it would mean to be open and affirming, the church held a vote of its members. The results were almost unanimous.
"We did lose some members over the course of the year after that, but we gained members too, and it has been one of the most enriching, meaningful experiences," Sandy said.
After 28 years of holding retreats at the Lake Yale Baptist Retreat, UCG was kicked out because members wore T-shirts supporting tolerance for gays, Larry said.
"That just solidified our resolve and unified us to say this is who we are, and this is what we believe," Sandy said.
UCG was honored in recent years for its work for gay rights and Habitat for Humanity, and Larry was recognized for his support of Planned Parenthood. When the Reimers arrived, UCG and Westminster Presbyterian were in the process of opening the ACORN clinic to provide health care to migrant workers.
Sandy said people often are drawn to the church by its social outreach and are surprised by its spirituality. She explained that the church compact's emphasis on an understanding of God however known means the church welcomes a community of seekers on different spiritual paths trying to reach the same sense of the holy.
Sandy said the church resonates with people who are not looking for a traditional experience. "Our mission is really to those people who are seeking a way back into church or who have never been to a church," she said.
Nancy Dana started attending the church with her family in 2005 after moving to Gainesville from Pennsylvania.
"After the first time we attended, I think we were hooked and we were also amazed, because it's the kind of thing when you go to UCG you think, ‘Gosh, I didn't know a church could be like this' … It's the variety, the intellectual approach to worship, and the fun."
Dana is chairing the search committee to find a new senior minister. Echoing the theme of Sandy's last sermon this past Sunday, Dana said the seeds the Reimers have planted have given the church a good foundation with a growing congregation, financial health and a structure to manage conflict well.
"That makes us really desirable to some of the best ministers out there," she said.
Instead of cold-calling ministers, she said the church has had 50 applications and expects to hire early next year.
What hasn't changed is that the next senior minister will be expected to embrace the compact adopted nearly 50 years ago by the church's founders: "to worship God, however known, to welcome into our church those of differing understanding and theological opinion, to learn from our religious heritage, yet to grow by seeking new dimensions of truth, to follow, even imperfectly, the way of Jesus in personal involvement with each other. And strengthened by this bond, to act in Christian concern for the welfare of all people."