MARLBOROUGH — In the decade since he became ordained, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Shore-Goss has ministered in diverse situations.
He counseled transgender children at a hospital and served as chaplain for a Los Angeles Police Department station in North Hollywood. He comforted Northern Californians returning to their homes after devastating wildfires. He’s been in the hospital with kids and parents after a bus crash.
“Working in the big city and the big community like that … it was such a widespread variety of people and experiences that it really trained me to be able to handle just about anything, anywhere,” Shore-Goss said.
Lately, he’s put that experience to work at the Federated Church of Marlborough, a congregation that meets in an old brick structure on a hill near Main Street. Shore-Goss became the church’s pastor in February, after he and his husband, the Rev. Dr. Robert Shore-Goss, a retired pastor and professor, moved here from California’s wine country.
The Marlborough church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and Unitarian Universalism. The couple — they go by Joe and Bob — lives in a parsonage house next door with their Chihuahua mix, Frisky. They’ve been settling into their New England home, eating at local restaurants, showing up at arts events and getting to know their new congregation and community.
“He’s a scholar and a teacher,” Joe said, “and I’m a pastor and a chaplain.”
Open to all
Joe, 56, and Bob, 70, each took unconventional paths to the priesthood and share a commitment to social and environmental causes, including climate change, LGBT rights and AIDS-related advocacy.
Growing up Catholic in the Detroit area, Joseph Shore knew he wanted to become a priest. He entered the seminary after high school, around 1980, but it didn’t last.
“I spent one year at the seminary and kind of grew into who I was meant to be, and so discovering I was gay and things,” Joe said. “So I didn’t stay.”
He worked different jobs after that, including as a dramatic interpreter for the hearing impaired and a vocational trainer for those with developmental disabilities. Eventually, he found himself in Palm Springs, Calif.
While he was volunteering for a local church during a festival one weekend, “a gentleman came up and started talking to me, and I spent, I don’t know, just 45 minutes, an hour, talking to him, listening to him,” Joe said. “And he was obviously living on the street, suffering from drug abuse. And when he walked away, my pastor came up and said, ‘Wow! Have you ever thought about going to the seminary? I couldn’t do that.’
“And it wouldn’t leave my head,” Joe said. He enrolled in Claremont School of Theology in Southern California in 2005.
Around that time, he met Bob Goss online.
In a recent interview in Joe’s office, the two men recounted the story. In conversation, Joe’s a little more concise and straightforward; Bob can summon an expansive range of historical references and academic theory. Both are engaging storytellers, with a sly sense of humor. They’ll take turns narrating a shared story, sometimes ending a sentence in unison.
“He said he was gonna take a gay theology course,” Bob recalled of their early courtship. “And I said, ‘Who are the authors?’ And he cited a few people, and I said, ‘Not so good.’ He cited me; I said, ‘He’s a pretty good author.’ ”
Bob then joined a field trip to a Buddhist meditation center in Los Angeles. “I have a doctorate in comparative religion with a specialty in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Christian theology,” he said. “… ‘It’ll be interesting, I’ll behave myself.’ Don’t ever believe that.”
“Neither one of us can behave ourselves,” Joe said. “This guy that was giving the tour was way off base.”
“He was an American Buddhist who, first thing, said that Buddhism doesn’t accept homosexuality,” Bob said. “And I raised my hand, I said, ‘Um, you have a Zen monk … as part of the queer interfaith council of clergy.’ ”
“It was a fun first date, needless to say,” Joe said.
Also from a Catholic family in Enfield, Conn., Bob became a Jesuit in the 1970s.
“One of the things I loved about the Jesuits is, they gave me a vision of love for humanity and justice,” Bob said. But around the time he was ordained a Catholic priest, he was also saying openly that “there’s nothing wrong with being gay and clergy.” He soon fell in love with another Jesuit named Frank.
“I started processing and praying, and said, ‘You know, it’s a choice between being (a) priest or lover,’ ” Bob recalled. “… I was putting those in either/or categories. And God was saying, ‘Uh-uh: both/and.’ So I resigned from the Jesuits.”
His parents didn’t talk to him for years after that, he said.
He and Frank moved to St. Louis, where they created an AIDS outreach group. Frank later died of the disease, Bob said.
Bob became a professor, prolific writer and “one of the nation’s foremost authorities on queer theology,” as a 2004 story in the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis alt-weekly, put it.
“For me, theology-wise,” Bob told The Sentinel, “… if the system is exclusive and excludes people that are LGBT, ‘queering’ it means to make it inclusive, to allow LGBT folks at table.”
A term reclaimed by the LGBT community, “queer” generally refers to identities that challenge heterosexuality or traditional gender norms. It can encompass “challenges to heteronormativity, patriarchy,” Bob said. “Being a virgin could be queer in the ancient world, because it meant, as a woman, you owned your own body.”
As an openly gay theology professor, Bob said he experienced homophobia, including an incident in which a university security guard vandalized his office.
Though both men have lived through considerable shifts in attitudes toward LGBT people, the progress has not been universal, Joe noted.
“For a lot of people, and I think it’s part of our responsibility as ministers, is the world changed faster than they can keep up with,” he said. “And so we have to gently love them into the 21st-century attitudes and understanding.”
In 2004, Bob became pastor of MCC United Church of Christ in the Valley, a North Hollywood church founded to serve the LGBTQ community. Joe later became co-pastor there.
One of their focuses was “greening” the church. The congregation had an energy audit, installed solar panels, put in high-efficiency toilets and collected rainwater. They tore up a parking lot and planted a meditation garden. Nature also featured prominently in their worship.
“We’re called to be caretakers of the Earth; the usual quote is ‘good stewards,’ ” Joe said. “Well, we haven’t been for centuries. We have used and abused the gifts that God has given us, and it is our responsibility to try to reverse some of the harm that’s been done.”
The Shore-Gosses have brought that sensibility with them to New Hampshire. Bob is part of a church group working on environmental initiatives and conducts trainings on the topic. He’s also working on his 12th book.
“It’s an indigenous reading of the historical Jesus as a model for dealing with climate change,” he said. “There’s a lot that the Bible and indigenous people share, with views around the land as gift, and the practice of vision quest and meditation, and wilderness spirituality.”
Joe, meanwhile, has delved into his responsibilities as pastor. He’s met with community members, including the town police chief. He’s building relationships with other church leaders in the state. He’s familiarizing himself with the facilities he now manages.
“A lot of my work is going to be involved in practical stuff around the church,” he said. For instance — faster Wi-Fi in the church, an updated church website, maybe a new paint job and a labyrinth for walking meditation.
Joe also has a creative side. He’s worked in photography, pottery and other mediums, and talks about “art as spiritual practice.”
“I preach that anything you do, if you engage in it intentionally, can become a spiritual practice,” he said. For instance: saying prayers as you weave, or going out into the world with a camera, looking for the divine. “It actually opens up your eyes to how God is all around you.”
Kathleen Oliver, vice moderator of the church council, called Joe a passionate and welcoming preacher who talks about the church as a “way of living.”
“He does not preach from the pulpit,” she said in an email. “He stands down in front.”
Joe portrays Jesus as “a radical who spoke truth to power” and showed compassion for “the marginalized — those who had no or little value in his culture,” Oliver said.
Church council moderator Marjorie Shepardson said many church members share the Shore-Gosses’ interest in social justice and the environment.
“I think those things are important to the people in our congregation,” Shephardson said. “A few years ago, we became an open and affirming church — open, affirming and reconciling,” she said, referring to labels signaling the church’s inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Many in the congregation are active in social justice causes, she added, and the church has taken steps to become greener, including the recent installation of solar panels on a church-owned building.
Both Oliver and Shephardson said they have seen new people attend services since Joe arrived. As for the pastor himself, he sees the potential for growth.
“Marlborough used to be a small town, but it’s slowly becoming basically suburbia to Keene,” he said, “and so there’s going to be some opportunities for change and growth and offering new ministries.”