Pastor hopes to continue church’s mission
The Harbor Church is experiencing changes from within and without.
As workers put the finishing touches on the exterior, a new pastor and his wife are settling in inside. Peter Preiser Jr., and his wife, Carrie Johnson, began their ministry on Block Island on Sunday, Sept. 16, with his first sermon.
“It was extraordinary,” said Preiser. “It was exciting. A lot of positive energy.” He said he understood that some of the people in the pews were there to “check out the new guy on the block” — something he didn’t say as a pun — but nonetheless Preiser and Johnson said they were already experiencing a great deal of synchronicity with the island.
The two are succeeding Steve Hollaway and his wife, Becca, who had served the church since 2009 and who retired at the end of July. The Hollaways had given the church notice of their impending retirement in 2017, giving the congregation a long period to find a successor.
Preiser said the church undertook a “thorough process” to find a new pastor, going through a period of “self-reflection” to define its “values and commitments to the community by a small team of people led by” former pastor Tony Pappas and Barby Michel. “Then they created a profile of the person they wanted,” said Preiser.
In the end it was a childhood friend of Carrie Johnson’s, congregant Will Young, who mentioned that the Harbor Church had a job open.
They had a thriving life in Simsbury, Conn., where Peter was a pastor and Carrie had a busy career as a vocal coach and guitar instructor, but something very strong called them to Block Island.
“We thought about it, we prayed about it. We came out here in the winter — where it absolutely had a different vibe. It was serene and beautiful,” said Johnson.
“There was a sense of calling and purpose,” said Preiser. “God has great plans in store for us. As long as you’re open to them, the possibilities are endless.” They both love the ocean (Preiser was in the Navy for four years), and both were familiar with the island. Johnson had been coming to the island since she was two, and Preiser first came out about 10 years ago.
“We have had a long love affair with the ocean,” said Preiser.
They are also strong environmentalists. Preiser said, “We hear things like there are no plastic straws or balloons —”
“We were like, ‘yay!’” Johnson interjected.
When asked what role a church plays in a community, Preiser said “a healthy, vibrant church should be a beacon of light, and provide services for the needs of the community on both a social and spiritual dimension — spiritual in helping people on their journey toward God and enlightenment — social in responding to the challenges and needs in the community, whatever they are.”
He said he would “not draw a line between the front door of the church and the island. We’re available to the whole island, regardless of their spiritual convictions. I really see the island as my parish — not to take away from the other churches, or other ministries — but I see myself as an old parish priest.”
He said he also wants to take a personal approach.
“If someone gets in trouble with the law, I’ll buy them a cup of coffee and try to help them through that — try to help people in very concrete ways,” said Preiser.
“One of the things that Peter is gifted at is counseling. We’re both in recovery — it’s not a secret — but one of the blessings of people hearing that is that they have turned to him or me, or us,” said Johnson.
In another life, Johnson had a career making pop music. She and her sister Libby formed the band 22 Brides, which put out several respected albums, and Carrie Johnson has released several solo albums. She hopes to make music an integral part of their ministry at Harbor Church.
“We celebrate life through music,” said Johnson. “Pop, classic, busking. It’s music, the universal language that I love.” She collaborated with Cameron Greenlee during their first service at the church, an experience she said was “awesome.”
As to his approach toward preaching, Preiser said his sermons are “usually fairly topical. I try to assess what’s going on with the church and the community. I preach out of the Bible, but I’m not dogmatic about it. I’m not, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord.’ I’ll want the congregation to wrestle with it.”
Preiser added, “I want to assure the community we recognize the rich tradition of the Harbor Church on the island. It’s open-door. We’ll strive to maintain the ethos of diversity, openness, acceptance of all people from different walks of life. We will continue to reinforce that.”
Other traditions will continue as well. The popular Common Ground Coffeehouse, which features live music, movies, and potluck dinners, will resume.
Johnson said she also hopes to bring more songwriting and singing events to the church.