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Everyday Spirituality with Rev. Kevin O’Hara | Everyday Spirituality | connect.faith
What an amazing and profound conversation with Rev. Kevin O’Hara about entering community during Covid, his personal faith journey, and how he approaches life in the the church in the world today with trust and hope!
Everyday Spirituality with Kevin O’Hara
Debbie Bronkema: This is Everyday Spirituality with connect.faith. I am Debbie Bronkema and I’m here today with Reverend Kevin O’Hara, who’s the pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Pleasantville, New York. He started his ministry in Pleasantville in the midst of Covid in February of 2020 after seven years serving as pastor in Patchogue on Long Island.
I’m so glad that you are here with us today.
Kevin O’Hara: I am so glad to be here with you and to be learning a lot about internet and [00:01:00] the ways that we connect with each other and talk to each other. Podcasting has become such a big thing especially during the pandemic and nowadays. And so this is my first podcast, so you can let me know how I do at the end by sending your… No? Okay.
Debbie Bronkema: Welcome. We’re so glad that you’re here and it’s been really great getting to know you since you moved here in person where most of the people I’m meeting these days are not in person. It’s been really fun to get to know a new person across the town.
Kevin O’Hara: Absolutely. And what a great community Pleasantville really is.
I mean, the cooperation between all the interfaith groups here and the town themselves, the people who just walk around and, and seem to be filled with joy and cheer and kindness. I love being here. Absolutely.
Debbie Bronkema: That’s awesome. I’m so glad that you’ve been welcomed well into the town.
That’s great to know. How hard was it to come here during Covid when you couldn’t actually connect with people? I mean, early on in Covid really, when things [00:02:00] were still shut down. How did you do that? How did you find ways to connect?
Kevin O’Hara: Great question. It was hard. One thing that’s absolutely true is that Covid has changed everything. When I first got to this congregation, we had congregation members who still don’t communicate by email or anything like that. And with a series of transitions that happened in the church, they were feeling left out. And understandably, because they didn’t know what was going on with all the changes in the worship cycle and the worship times, and whether the church was open or not on a given Sunday, or whether we were worshiping outside or inside.
So that’s been a huge challenge. And you know, we have people in our congregation that are still living with the effects of covid. So whether they have immune systems that are weakened for whatever reason from various other illnesses or diseases, or they’re living in fear because covid is still an [00:03:00] illness that can cause death and severe complications that we’re still learning about.
Everybody’s been kind of trying to figure out what is appropriate for them. Now, where it gets to be incredibly hard is that the congregation then assumes that if it works for me, it works for everybody else. And so there are people in the congregation who are, quite frankly, very fine with not wearing masks at all. And coming to church every Sunday and meeting me, and being there, and that’s been fine. But the best ways that I’ve been able to connect with people I think is not through necessarily the big gatherings, but either using Zoom, which has changed the world also during this pandemic, seeing them in person on Zoom, or meeting them one on one or two on one or small family gatherings, and just getting to know them better that way.
Now that being said, I haven’t even gotten to the fullness of my congregation yet. So we’re still, we’re still living in these effects. I would be sure that most of the [00:04:00] congregation I would’ve visited already in person, within the first couple months, just because that’s how our, our protocols are set up.
You have a celebration. Everybody’s invited, everybody’s excited to come. People who haven’t been in church for five years suddenly show up, but that’s just not, that’s not happening here. And so, yes, our community. It’s still taking a while. We’re getting there.
Debbie Bronkema: You’re getting there. So part of what I usually talk to people about on this podcast is where your journey started. How did you start to be a person of faith? Was it a childhood thing for you? Was it young adulthood? Where did you become somebody that followed faith?
Kevin O’Hara: Absolutely. So I’ve gotta say, at first I was not impressed with faith at all.
I was born and raised in the Lutheran church my whole life. My father’s Catholic, my mother is Lutheran. I always tell people my mother won when my brothers were born, that they decided that they were gonna take the children to the [00:05:00] Lutheran church and have that Catechesis process through the church. And so I will say that, you know, I deeply respect the Catholic background my family has. I love Celtic Christianity. But I really am made to be Lutheran. I mean, there was just something about it. But that being said I wasn’t really a firm believer growing up.
In fact the pastor of that church I grew up in and I sometimes didn’t see eye to eye. I was an Eagle Scout, or I am an Eagle Scout, and the project that we were doing was putting in a bird sanctuary and at one point the pastor and I didn’t see eye to eye on that project. And there were a few other times where it just seemed like there was something here.
And so it really turned off my faith. And it turned off me from ever even wanting to pursue any kind of religious background. When I went to college, I spent a year just kind of on my own before realizing that there was something missing. And that big component was faith. I will also [00:06:00] say though, I’ll back up just one moment to when I was in ninth grade.
And this is why I get the nickname Hollywood O’Hara.
Debbie Bronkema: That’s great Nickname!
Kevin O’Hara: So in ninth grade it was Ash Wednesday and we were in church worshiping. And of course, you know, in ninth grade this is not the cool thing to do, but my family was there and we were coming back from communion. And I grew up in a church that, you know, you sit quietly.
There’s no sound, not even a cough coming from anybody in the congregation throughout the whole worship service. I mean, it was one of those kind of things, like you just felt that there was a holiness in the quiet. That worked for that congregation. I was walking back to my seat and again, ninth grade, and I heard my name, just, "Kevin."
And I look around and I’m thinking, "Who is breaking the silence in this moment?" And of course nobody was looking at me. Everybody was looking either down on their laps cuz this is the story in communion. And so they’re either [00:07:00] praying or they’re walking up to the altar to receive communion and I’m thinking to myself, "Well this is completely bizarre."
So we go home that night and my brother decides to put on a CD, when CDs were actually a thing, and it was the first time I heard contemporary Christian music. And I just fell in love with it. And I thought, you know, "This was a divine moment. God was calling me to be in the church and I am to…" (cause I play the piano,) "I am to play the piano and the keyboard and lead this church in a new way."
Well of course, you know, you get that kind of ego about you. One, you realize you’re really not that good of a piano player, and two, he is the pastor and probably that’s one of the reasons the pastor and I had some falling out. So I didn’t really pursue this at all after that moment. I went to college and was trained as an elementary education teacher.
I really thought that this was gonna be my profession my whole life ever since I was in third grade and inspired. [00:08:00]
Debbie Bronkema: Really?
Kevin O’Hara: But this was also the time of the "No Child Left Behind" policy. And my view of the world is just a little different. And I remember sitting down with my cooperating teacher, and it was like the second week she said to me, she’s like, "You’re a great teacher and you excite so many kids, but you’re not going to be a teacher in the school district." And I was like, "Well, that’s a… that’s a hard thing to say." And she’s like, "No, no, no, you, you’re gonna walk out this with perfect days!"
"You’re not, you’re not doing anything wrong. I just see that there’s something that you’re wrestling with here."
Debbie Bronkema: Interesting.
Kevin O’Hara: "And I can see it." And sure enough, I, you know, my view of the world is just, everybody’s so different. Everybody’s made so uniquely that to have a standardized anything was really troubling to my own psyche.
And so, I wound up realizing that this was not my call and waiting to figure out what to do next. I also had knee surgery when I was 20. Over the summer I had to relearn how to walk and spent [00:09:00] the summer on a couch watching every movie twice in the house, and reading every book. And then there was only one book left.
And of course, again, I was struggling with my faith, struggling with God, and still obviously in college at this point. And my parents both worked so during the day, I decided that I was gonna read the Bible from cover to cover and prove that God couldn’t exist because the Bible obviously is wrong.
Debbie Bronkema: Oh wow!
Kevin O’Hara: And so every day I would read several chapters and then I would write in a journal everything that I questioned about the Bible. And so, you know, you get to the gospels and you’re like, "Well, the gospel stories chronologically don’t work out exactly right." And you get to, you know, well, "How can, in Genesis, how can we talk about the first five days when there’s no humans on the planet?"
So, you know, so I’m, I’m writing all these questions down and really wrestling with this. Every time my parents would come home, I would quickly shove the bible underneath the couch. So as not to prove anything. [00:10:00] And I gotta say one day my mom walked in and caught me
And that’s when she said, "I think you should go to seminary."
Debbie Bronkema: Out of the blue?
Kevin O’Hara: Just out of the blue.
Debbie Bronkema: Wow.
Kevin O’Hara: And again, wrestling with what my call will be in life, I had no idea what to do. So when I graduated at college, I love learning and I decided I’ll go to seminary. And the rest is history. I mean, it’s been a "kicking and screaming" kind of path for me.
God definitely has a sense of humor. But I’ve learned so much and gotten to appreciate a deeper sense of faith and a deeper sense of humility by the struggles that I’ve gone through all these years. And, yeah, it’s amazing. I would never have imagined this path for me. I think that the first time I finally realized I’m going to be a pastor was when I was ordained and that was like, "Oh, there is no other calling for me."
And everything just seems to have fit together since.
Debbie Bronkema: So all that writing you did and [00:11:00] arguing you did with the Bible, what did you do with that?
Kevin O’Hara: That’s a really great question. I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in the house, I just, you know, it’s something I think about every so often and think, "It would be great to bring that back out and just look at every single question I wrote down for every single book of the Bible and see where I am today and see how that’s changed."
That might be a good projects for me.
Debbie Bronkema: Good exercise. Yeah!
Kevin O’Hara: Well I know you’re a huge reader anyway, so that has been a joy for you in the terms of studying the Bible?
Absolutely. For me, it’s so interesting when I get to read the Bible through twice in a year and, you know, it’s never a dull moment.
There might be days where I’m not feeling like getting really deep into the pages, into the story. But there are always these twists and turns. I’m like, "I’ve read this Bible cover to cover before, and this is the first time I’m recognizing this particular nuance, this particular story or this particular [00:12:00] character. Where has my mind been all this time?
It’s really like a friendship. For me, it’s getting to know the characters even deeper and more intimate. And I firmly believe that, you know, we are all characters in the Bible. We just have to figure out which character we are in the Bible. So I’m a Jacob, and I start off by saying "Jacob’s a conniver, a swindler, he lies a lot…"
So I don’t know what that says about my personality, but you know, Jacob is one of those people who’s so misguided because he thinks just because he was born second, that he is inferior.
Debbie Bronkema: Yeah.
Kevin O’Hara: And he has that kind of complex where he’s struggling with this and he wants to become dominant over his other brother and he does so many bad things.
And some of it is, you know, it seems like maybe he had a really wonderful relationship with his mother, so do I, and maybe his mother was kind of pushing that a little bit on him too. And you know, I think where Jacob gets really involved in my own life is the night [00:13:00] that Jacob wrestles. And Jacob says, "I’m not letting you go until you bless me." And I feel like that’s the kind of same relationship I have with God. Not every day is perfect. But, I definitely see the blessings every day.
Debbie Bronkema: Oh, that’s really profound. And I’m thankful for that for you. That’s awesome to be both wrestling and blessed at the same time.
Kevin O’Hara: Absolutely.
Debbie Bronkema: It’s pretty amazing. Yeah.
Kevin O’Hara: If I had to guess, I think that’s where the Christian Church is nowadays. I mean, we don’t have much of an identity that’s solidified. We don’t have a united front anymore, and I think it’s because we’re all wrestling. I love reading stories of how people depict a fictitional Jesus.
And that’s always my Lentin reading, to read different stories because we’re all trying to make sense out of this. We’re all trying to make sense of who God is in this world. There’s so many holes in the Bible as it is. And so as people write about how they paste together different stories and how [00:14:00] they cover up some of those holes, I get to learn who Jesus is for you and why so important. We’re all just wrestling. We’re all just trying to figure this out. We’re all just trying to live as faithfully as we can. And sometimes it’s really hard, especially in a world where there’s violence on the rise, there’s a pandemic that we’re still dealing with.
There’s all these, natural climate changes that are happening. I think the church lives the strongest that it possibly can in these kind of times. Even though we’re talking about a church that’s dying nowadays.
Debbie Bronkema: So the wrestling is part of the rebirth?
Kevin O’Hara: Yes, absolutely.
Debbie Bronkema: I like that. So what do you do when you don’t feel as hopeful? How do you fill yourself up?
Kevin O’Hara: Yeah, that’s a great question. Cuz there are plenty of times not to feel hopeful. And my church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, is going through one of those most pivotal times of, you know, listening to a whole bunch of voices. And my heart breaks each and every time these [00:15:00] conflicts arise. And conflicts have arisen in our denomination over the last couple years to the point where there are people that continually say, "We wanna break off from the church. We’re not content with the church." It’s, you know, it seems to be the going cry of this world.
The thing that picks me up, really, turns out to be that relationship. You know, I don’t know where God is. And I gotta be very confident and say this, that God is always the thing that surprises me. God is the one who, if I ever construct something, God is always breaking down that box or that mold.
I think about that Native American proverb that there are many rivers to the one mighty ocean. Every time I think I’m traveling down one of those rivers, God says, "Nope, pick up your canoe and go down another one." It’s that kind of wrestling, and I see that relationship with other people helping me to understand the totality of God, the hope of God, that God is still moving in this time and place. And that relationship with other people also [00:16:00] says to me, "It’s not about me. You’re just here to be a placeholder, to be God’s hands in a world that needs some hope." And so, you know, if I do start feeling down, and there are plenty of times I feel down, I start trying to get out myself and then try to think, "How has God persevered over 4,000 years of history?"
Debbie Bronkema: Right. Beautiful. Beautiful. So I love both your honesty about the church is not well in the world today. And at the same time, there is still the possibility of faith. There is still the possibility of walking together in community, even if it doesn’t look the way it used to look.
Do you ever wonder what it might look like in the future?
Kevin O’Hara: All the time. All the time. I’m on the candidacy committee for our denomination and that’s one of the hardest roles I’ve ever had to do. I mean, people are coming and they’re thinking outside the box or they’re living outside the box. The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) has the structure of, "This is who [00:17:00] we want as our pastors," but that structure is eroding with the demands on people’s lives nowadays.
It’s not working the same way that he used to. A three year seminary program, plus a one year of internship that you can uproot to anywhere in the world doesn’t work so well for second career people. Or people with young families and a spouse that’s grounded in that community that you live in.
And so there’s all these questions that come up and challenges that come up. There are people who are Pentecostal in nature and they have gifts. One of my great friends from Ohio is a Pentecostal Lutheran, was a Pentecostal Lutheran pastor. And he struggled with that call every single day.
And the pandemic unfortunately, really solidified for him that this was not his time and place, unfortunately. But I still think he has a wonderful gift to offer to the church. So, yeah, the struggle is real. The struggle is active. I think it’s definitely gonna look different. I think that there are gonna be churches that survive with [00:18:00] buildings, but not all churches will survive with buildings.
I think that what’s going on is the great, um, "pruning" sounds a little harsh. Definitely what I see in congregations that I get to be involved with, is this leadership that’s rising. Before they kind of were like, "You know, I’m on the sidelines. I’m not really active. I’m not really a part of this church." I’m seeing people really step up and say, "Oh my gosh, there is a place for me." As, as Frederick Buechner would say, you know, where our passions meeting the world’s greatest needs is where God is calling us. There are great needs within the church all the time. And so I do think, you know, there might be more churches that are outside of public buildings. There are going to be churches that are meeting certain needs in each and every community. That’s going to be very specific to that community. I mean, it looks a lot like it is now, and quite frankly, it might not be as institutionalized as it is today, that that might very well be.
And that’s, I’m an institutionalist so [00:19:00] that’s a little scary for me, but I do think all these different ways of change in our church is God saying, "Hey, trust. Everything’s gonna be okay."
Debbie Bronkema: Okay. So sending us in a new direction and our role is to trust and follow that new direction.
Kevin O’Hara: Absolutely. Not knowing where we’re going, but only that the Lord’s hand is carrying us and strengthening us.
Debbie Bronkema: So is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Kevin O’Hara: I think the biggest thing for all of us is we need to find new friends and get over our own church identities. Especially in the Lutheran church. This is the month of October, so at the end of this month we’re gonna be celebrating Reformation Day, which is always this grand moment in the church.
I’ll be careful not to say "Celebration," it’s more of a commemoration. I’ve been told that several times but I’m not sure the church body sees the difference between commemoration and celebration. We had 500 years of recognition of the [00:20:00] 95 Theses only a few years ago, and that was a huge event for our denomination.
And even still to this day, I continue to hear people who say, Well, I am firmly Lutheran, and when you ask them, What does it mean to be Lutheran? They will say, "Well, I’m Christian." And they won’t be able to elucidate the kind of theological conundrums that Martin Luther was facing 500 years ago. This day and age we’re more alike than we’re different.
And it is important for us to recognize that the differences are unique in each community, but the differences also are what hold us together. And that’s why I’m so excited to always be working with other clergy of other Christian denominations and also our interfaith communities.
I remember after the Pittsburgh shooting, our church reached out to the local synagogue in Patchogue and we said, "What can we do to help you because this is horrible." And I even said to them, you know, I was so changed by the Pulse nightclub shooting in [00:21:00] Florida because that was an LGBTQ community.
And that rocked my world, and I remember changing the whole sermon that Sunday morning. And so reaching out to the synagogue down the street and they said, "We just need you to be present for our memorial service." And I was honored to be there. And then they said, "Can you say a few words?"
And I had no idea what to say. And the Holy Spirit moves in wonderful ways. It turns out that I quoted from Ruth that, "Where you go, I will go. Your God will be my God, and where your people are buried there, I will be buried also." And I said, "That’s the sacred vow that we’re all taking this day. Our church and this synagogue together. We are not going to leave each other alone." And it was just the start of a beautiful friendship and relationship. And so I’m hoping that as we continue to go down this road, that Christianity can continue to open themselves up to asking questions about, you know, is my heart big enough? Is the love of Jesus big enough to allow [00:22:00] me to welcome others who I don’t understand? And then to be inspired and changed by those relationships as well.
Debbie Bronkema: Oh, that’s beautiful. Thank you for that.
Kevin O’Hara: Absolutely.
Debbie Bronkema: Thank you for that. So if people wanna know more about you, where can they find you?
Kevin O’Hara: So a whole bunch of people have already Googled me,
Good luck. Yeah, so absolutely, you can always check out our website at the church, https://www.EmanuelELC.org. We’re hoping to update that a little bit more few weeks alone as we are facing some staffing transitions. So we will have to update that but on there are all the ways that you can contact me if you have any other questions, and otherwise, yeah, feel free to Google because that’s what people do nowadays, right?
Debbie Bronkema: That’s right. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. So this has been Everyday Spirituality with connect.faith. Thank you to Kevin for joining us today. You can find [00:23:00] us at all the places that you regularly subscribe to podcasts, and if there’s someone you know that might like to hear the stories you’ve heard, please feel free to share!
Kevin O’Hara: Thank you so much!
Debbie Bronkema: Thank you.