Over the vacant altar at Hamptons United Methodist Church in Southampton Village hangs a banner the congregation had made to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Reverend Leslie Duroseau’s tenure at their church.
The banner went up in February, in advance of the official July anniversary milestone, and just a couple weeks before the church was forced to close its doors as the epidemic surged.
It hung in an empty sanctuary — the only Methodist church on the East End with a Black pastor — as the Black Lives Matter movement swept the country, and past its own doors, with new vigor and angst.
And, now, it hangs with a particularly sad irony in a sanctuary that will never again hear Rev. Duroseau’s sermons.
Amid the pandemic and the BLM protests, with parishioners already locked out of their church for months, the United Methodist Church conference informed Rev. Duroseau that she was to be transferred out of Southampton, to new assignments presiding over two churches, in the Bronx and Westchester.
Rev. Duroseau looked back this week on her tenure on the South Fork and recalled her startling, tumultuous first year, the satisfying success that followed and, now, the heartbreak of its conclusion.
As a 43-year-old Black woman from Queens, a former social worker and hip-hop dancer on her first clerical assignment, with braids in her hair, a Baptist preacher’s cadence to her sermons and aspirations to get the congregation’s “hands clapping and feet moving,” she arrived in a church with a congregation that was 95 percent white senior citizens like a baseball through a kitchen window.
Within a year, half the congregation had quit the church after clashes with the new pastor’s style, compassion for outsiders and “blackness,” as she puts it.
But the congregation rebuilt in the ensuing years, as a decidedly more diverse cross-section of the local community, and has proven to be one of the most successful cross-cultural assignments in New York’s Methodist conference.
After a rocky start that she says tested her faith and opened her naive eyes to an “ugly” side of religion in America that preaches love and welcoming but practices prejudice and exclusion, Rev. Duroseau says she is now being ripped from a congregation that had grown around her like a second skin.
“This came as a real shock,” she said, sitting in the empty sanctuary of the church, beneath the banner that was supposed to be celebration of triumph. “I don’t believe it was time for me to leave yet. I think it is bad timing with all that is going on in the world. Now, out of the nine [Methodist churches] on the East End, there will be no Black pastor, which is more disturbing to me than anything. Now is when we need that voice in the community.”
Reverend Leslie, as she is widely known, will give her final sermon this weekend, to a congregation that she has mostly not seen in person in four months, from the church’s sanctuary via Zoom, YouTube and Facebook, to hopefully connect with as many congregants as possible.
She will leave behind a church with a bustling youth program that runs a summer day camp and after-school services for working families, hosts a number of multi-cultural events, welcomes yoga classes and local playwrights and struggling business owners, installed a shower for the area’s homeless to use, and has become known throughout the community as having doors open to all.
“We are the church for all people,” Rev. Duroseau says. “Our role is to provide opportunities for people. The community knows we will be there for them, we will support them. I’m not going to tell someone they can’t use our church, that they can’t come here to work on forming their own business, that they can’t have funeral services because they can’t afford it.”
She speaks with relish of the African dance and drumming shows she started for the congregation during Black History Month several years ago that have now become popular annual events, of the popularity of the fellowship gatherings after Sunday services, and of how the congregation has embraced the church’s diversity and Christian values for the sake of the values, not empty virtue signaling.
The departing pastor recalls less fondly the early days of her tenure.
Her ministry did not get off to a roaring start. A congregation that was two generations older than her and had largely rarely even brushed elbows with a Black person since grade school, she thought she would win over with her mastery of the Bible’s scripture and her devotion to the teachings of Christ.
Instead, she found followers less interested in the message of sermon than with its running time, and unwilling or unable to adjust their expectations to her style. Many left fairly quickly and, when asked, said that she had “changed everything.” The only thing that she had changed, she says, was the person standing in the pulpit.
Her immediately unstable relationship with some of the parishioners — many of whom had been members of the church for many decades and saw how it was perceived from the outside by those from other churches as important as what was said on the inside — came to a head over a young local resident with big dreams and few resources.
An aspiring playwright with a zest for sharing his ambitions with anyone who would listen, he quickly found a willing ear and welcome refuge from the less dreamy real world at Rev. Leslie’s church. He became a daily fixture.
Members of the congregation were not enthused. In a meeting that she describes as one of the worst days of her life, they told her that they felt uncomfortable coming to the church when the young Black man was hanging out around the office or practicing one of his plays in the sanctuary. They said he was a regular at the library, as well, and that they had to “kick him out” as well.
“I was so hurt,” she recalled, her voice still drooping with disappointment, a decade later. “I was like, you mean this young guy, who just wants to have a place to go every day, to sit in front of a computer or talk about his grand dreams? Why would you kick him out? Who are we supposed to be here for if it’s not the least of them, if it’s not for the person who doesn’t have a place to go. If church is not that place, I told them, then you need to get a new pastor.
“It was an eye opener for me,” she added. “I thought church was this loving community and this was like — Wham! — welcome to the real world. This is how church is. Church is mean. Church is ugly.”
The Sunday following that meeting, Rev. Duroseau says she “let them have it” in a sermon that laid bare the divides between the teachings of Christ and the Bible and the attitudes of some members. More left the church shortly thereafter. The pastor says that some of the former parishioners have apologized to her in the years since, but did not return.
Instead, she says, those who “were supposed to be here” took their seats in the pews.
The congregation is the same size now as it was when she arrived, she said. She hopes that it — and churches across the nation — can maintain that in the post-COVID world. It will not be easy.
The uncertain future of the health concerns presented by the novel coronavirus leaves a very hazy road ahead for houses of worship being able to hold in-person services. Already the adjustments have been Herculean, turning to technology and losing much of the spiritual support in times of grief provide by funerals and visits to dying loved ones by their clergy.
The innovation that the closures have spawned may well pose an even more dire long-term threat.
The ability of being able to hear services and sermons from the comfort of one’s own home via video streams, has already shown itself to be an attractive one that may not send parishioners rushing back to pews, dressed in their Sunday best, even when it is safe to do so.
“It will be interesting to see how many churches survive COVID-19,” Rev. Duroseau, who conducted live-stream sermons from the church, from her office, from her home and from local beaches to keep people engaged during the closures, worried. “We did a survey and asked people if they would come back to church. A lot said they are too scared because of their age or pre-existing conditions. But they also say, it’s not a bad thing to be able to keep your pajamas on.”
For her, in particular, the remote world now presents an even higher hurdle. With two new churches whose congregations she will meet for the first time through a video screen, on top of the usual challenges of being a new pastor, she has grave concerns about how well she’ll be able to muster enthusiasm.
“How on earth do you establish real relationships doing virtual church,” she wondered. Rev. Duroseau said she felt like she’s already lost her South Fork congregation to the coronavirus, even though no members of the church died from the disease.
“Dealing with COVID, not being able to be there for them, to not be able to funeralize people, it has been so hard,” she said. “I am losing loved ones.”