BRATTLEBORO — It’s midway through one of the longest heat waves here in years, the thermometer registering a wilting 96-plus degrees for the third day in a row. It’s the right time to pull out that old joke about seeing a dog chasing a cat, and they were both walking.
The air conditioning struggling inside the administrative offices of Centre Congregational Church on Main Street can’t keep up with the humidity and heat of the day; it’s warm and clammy inside. In a small office by the front door sits Rev. Dr. David Stinson, dressed in slacks, a white, long-sleeved dress shirt and bright bow tie.
How he’s not sweating is quite remarkable. He’s busy working on paperwork at a very small desk, in an equally small chair, made all the smaller-looking by his lanky, 6-foot-1 frame. His tortoise-shell glasses are perched halfway down his nose, and he looks like an old-fashioned headmaster at a one-room schoolhouse.
“A previous pastor took his desk with him. It was much bigger than this one,” explains the 68-year-old native Texan in a sonorous, elongated drawl that instantly indicates he’s not from here.
“The desk is small, yes, but the good thing is that it keeps you from piling too much on it,” he quips, his face opening into a welcoming smile.
After a few minutes’ conversation, it’s apparent Stinson is easy-going, relaxed and very comfortable with himself. Still, one would think that the man, a long-time minister who is also a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, might be accustomed to a more commodious desk and chair.
Stinson officially retired from a 42-year ministerial career in 2017 and this past March was recruited to serve as interim pastor of Centre Congregational.
“I’m called the bridge pastor because I bridge the span until a new minister starts later this month … and also because I have to cross the bridge to get to Brattleboro,” he says.
“I had preached a sermon here in November 2017, and I didn’t trip up or mangle the language, so they must have thought of me as suitable, I guess,” he says, his self-deprecating, dry wit surfacing.
He and his wife, Cynthia, live in the village of Westport in Swanzey and are the parents of four. In his long ministerial career, Stinson served three churches: South Congregational in Lawrence, Mass.; The Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor, Maine; and Glen Ridge Congregational of Glen Ridge, N.J.
Stinson served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, most of his career there in the Navy Reserve. He retired in 2010, having been promoted in 2007 to the rank of rear admiral, in charge of all chaplains in the reserve.
A new, permanent minister, Rev. Scott Couper, will take over from Stinson at the Brattleboro church July 22. Couper has been pastor of Congregational churches in South Africa for the past 18 years.
“We’re very excited to have him; his experience in Africa will bring much to our congregation,” Stinson says.
“Twenty-five years ago, Centre Church was probably the church in Brattleboro,” he notes. “In the years since, the congregation has dwindled due to various reasons, and they were without a minister for the past three and a half years.”
Nonetheless, the church is a significant landmark downtown, a quintessential example of New England architecture, and its structure is being renovated and getting a new coat of white paint. The church dates back to 1816 and is now a rather large complex covering half a block. It offers a host of services, including its Centre for Children, for infants through pre-school. Through the Loaves and Fishes program, lunches are served on Tuesdays and Fridays, and a significant amount of takeout food is available on Fridays for those lacking meals over the weekend. Centre Congregational also sponsors medical, church and youth mission trips.
Roots in Texas
Stinson was born in the small northeast Texas city of Bonham, next to the Oklahoma border, his mother’s family having arrived there from Kentucky after the Civil War. He spent his first four years there, and then the family moved to Dallas; Abilene, Texas; and Baton Rouge, La., all in connection with his father’s commercial construction business. They returned to Bonham for his high school years. He is the oldest of five children.
“I knew in high school that I wanted to be a minister. Though I grew up in a religious family, I had wanted and planned to go to Annapolis or MIT or Rice University to become an engineer,” Stinson says. “It was at a church camp for high school students when I met a number of young ministers, and my plans changed. It never occurred to me that I could be a clergyman and be in the Navy, until later.”
In 1979, while serving his first congregation as minister in Lawrence, Mass., one of his colleagues, the late Rev. Alexander Daley of North Andover, had been a line officer in the Navy before attending the seminary.
“After his ordination, he switched over to be a chaplain in the Navy Reserve. It was he who recruited me,” Stinson says.
Stinson then went on to the Naval Chaplaincy School in Newport, R.I., during the winters of 1980 and 1981. “I worked with many Coast Guard units and submarines during my days as a junior chaplain, and as I became more senior, I worked for a fleet hospital and several regional commands,” he says.
The story of how Stinson first came to the Keene area starts back when he was pastor of the Lawrence church. He met his future wife, Cyndi, during a summer ecumenical Bible school program sponsored by the Greater Lawrence Council of Churches. She was a student at Keene State College and was hired to do staff work for the Lawrence program.
“On my days off the next fall, I’d often drive up to Keene to see her. I also had two very good friends who had — and still have — a cottage on Spofford Lake. They are Steve and Mabel Peterson. After we got married in 1980, we then moved to Boothbay Harbor. Almost every summer, we’d come to Spofford for a week until Mabel told me the four Stinson children and we had outgrown the septic system,” he says. “By that time, we were living in Glen Ridge, N.J., and so we bought the house in Westport in 1993 as a place to come each summer.”
It was during his assignment at the Glen Ridge Congregational Church that he faced a particularly difficult challenge as a minister. Glen Ridge is a suburb 45 minutes from downtown Manhattan, and eight Glen Ridge residents died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Almost all of its citizens either knew, were related to or worked with victims. Stinson’s church raised funds for victims’ families. And as part of his work in the Navy, he helped organize support services for loved ones of service members deployed after the attacks and provided spiritual counsel to injured soldiers, according to a story in Northjersey.com last year when he retired from the Glen Ridge church.
“Having a foot in both the military world and the civilian world made me much more aware of the needs of those who are deployed and their families. I brought that to the table,” he says. “The clergy are very important to military people integrating back into society.”
As for his theological and ministerial ethos, he describes himself as a “Biblical preacher” and at Yale Divinity School was much influenced by the preaching of William Sloane Coffin and William Muehl.
“But we pick up influences from everywhere. My father, as are many Southerners, was a great storyteller and raconteur. I inherited his gift and am always on the lookout for a good story.”
Stinson’s long-time fellow Rotarian and friend at Keene Elm City Rotary, Michael Chelstowski, attests to that. “David spins an interesting tale whenever he speaks,” he says. “He can really tell a story, and a joke.” Stinson joined the club in 1993, just a few years after it had formed and attended meetings in August when he was vacationing at his Westport home.
Besides concentrating on his preaching, Stinson is also a diligent scholar of the history of Christianity.
“The people need to recover knowledge of the historic church. Christ was so radical for the Greek and Roman world. We’ve grown up with it (Christianity), but in that era it was revolutionary,” he says, citing as an example that the Sermon on the Mount outlined concepts completely alien to that ancient world.
Stinson’s “guiding stars,” besides Jesus Christ, are St. Paul, St. Augustine, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards.
After his stint at Centre Congregational is finished, Stinson says he and his wife will return to their regular congregation, the First Congregational Church of Swanzey.
“I’ve taught several Bible studies there in my first year of retirement as well as volunteered to help the minister, the Rev. Damon Anderson, as he needs it and as I am able,” he says. “I don’t have plans to do another interim, but then, I didn’t plan on going to Brattleboro either. God knows.”