The Rev. Deborah Hafner DeWinter (United Church of Christ) is pastor of First, Poughkeepsie.
Welcome—we’re pleased you’re serving in the Metro New York Synod! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was ordained in the American Lutheran Church and sent as a missionary to Hong Kong in 1986, where I served a Chinese Lutheran congregation that developed an outreach ministry for Filipina migrant workers. There, I also worked with The Art in the Camps Project, organizing an international exhibit featuring the art of Vietnamese boat people who were incarcerated in Hong Kong. It helped break down the barriers of prejudice between the Chinese and Vietnamese, and fed the spirits of those in the camps.
After I returned to the States in 1990, I was called to be Program Director for Resettlement of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) in New York. I did that for five years and then was called to a similar program at Church World Service. In both places, I was responsible for refugee resettlement, and worked to motivate congregations to welcome the stranger.
Then I went off to Geneva to be a consultant for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I had a two-year project there; after 9/11 happened, I wanted to come back to New York. The job available at that time was to be the executive director for FilmAid International. In Kenya, at Kakuma refugee camp, we had a mobile cinema unit and 15,000 refugees would walk half a day to come see a film. We worked with the brightest and the best to make PSAs on health, land mines, or other concerns.
It was a wonderful project but I wanted to get back to the faith community. The opportunity came to direct the U.S. office of the World Council of Churches. For six years I worked closely with the 37 U.S. member communions, travelled back and forth to Geneva, and also helped staff other WCC projects until the U.S. office closed in 2009.
Wow, you have worked all over the world in a variety of roles. How is it that you now find yourself a parish pastor?
God has always offered me ministry to do! The tug to return to the parish was very strong. In 1995, I joined the United Church of Christ but it wasn’t until 2003 that I sought to have my clergy credentials recognized. Then it took until the time was right. My good friend Pastor Ann Tiemeyer accompanied me in the journey of seeking a return to the parish. She connected me with [Assistant to the Bishop for Congregations] Pastor Kathleen Koran. I went to talk to her and Pastor Koran was the most marvelous pastor. She made me feel at home and invited me to share my story with care. At the end of that conversation, she listened to my hopes and dreams for ministry and said, "I feel called to share with you the needs of a congregation within a commutable distance of your home. Just read it, if you feel called." I went home and read the profile of First Lutheran Church and thought, I can’t believe this. Everything they say about themselves is what I feel drawn to. How can this be? It was the most incredulous experience from beginning to end. There was almost too much grace to bear!
Tell us a little bit about First, Poughkeepsie.
What really struck me about this congregation was that they had very strong lay leadership, after 20 years of a pastorate where they had very little connection with the ELCA or ecumenically. The lay leadership, in four years of vacancy, reached out in every direction, became ecumenically involved, and bonded with their neighborhood congregations. We have a joint VBS with one Episcopal congregation and we regularly exchange music ministry with another. Our congregation is in its 27th year of hosting a Lunch ‘N Listen program as an outreach to the wider community. We have a quilting group that has been sending quilts to LWR for more than 40 years; Wetzel Hall, a brick house next to the church provided space for at risk youth for years; we have held literacy classes here; and we currently have a Senior Friendship Program five days a week that provides a hot lunch and social interaction for seniors.
The ecumenical work ties in nicely with your background!
Right in downtown, we have First Congregational, First Baptist, First Lutheran, Christ Episcopal, and St. Paul’s Episcopal. All these big steeple churches in an impoverished neighborhood have the potential of linking arms and making a difference. And we’re willing to work together. I envision working together in even greater ways in the days ahead, reaching out to people who are hurting. The potential is limitless—there’s far more ministry to be done than there are churches. We intend to use our building to the max. We are looking at a joint youth ministry; none of us have enough youth to do it alone.
Where do you find joy in ministry?
First is my dream congregation. A church determined to live. A church that can think outside the box in order to be responsive to a new time in an old place. A church that is willing and excited about working with others. A church that isn’t afraid. A church that is willing to rely on God’s spirit and grace to take it forward. The qualities that drew me here are that the people of First Lutheran know how to live and how to have fun. They waited for a pastor who could encourage them to think outside the box and reassure them of God’s unconditional love for them. Many congregations would have looked at my background and said, what does she know about parish ministry? They’re perfect for me; I hope by God’s grace I can be perfect for them.