KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — South Congregational Church pastor Charlie Whiston has been serving not just his 350 parishioners, but the entire community of the Kennebunks for the past 27 years.
This fall, he is retiring and heading south for the next chapter in his life.
Whiston arrived at South Congregational Church in Dock Square in January of 1991 and quickly enmeshed himself into the fabric of the community. On Sunday mornings for the past 27 years he could be found at his pulpit, but on other days he roamed the Kennebunks, sitting in on meetings, visiting people in need, serving on a variety of committees, and ministering to those going through a tough time.
At 66, Whiston is looking forward to what he calls “unmortgaged time” in his newly chosen hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. He will be closer to his three adult children Michael, who is in Pittsburgh and daughters Laura and Anna who are both in Washington, D.C. His first plan after he settles in is to do nothing.
“First, I’m going to catch my breath. I’m going to ‘let my soul catch up with my body,’” he said, to paraphrase a book passage given to him by a parishioner.
As Hurricane Florence leaves a path of destruction throughout his new home state, he knows he may be called upon to roll up his sleeves and “minister” in a different way when he arrives in a few weeks, but that kind of work is familiar to Whiston too.
For over 10 years, he has taken his passion for helping others to the south, to lead yearly week-long mission trips to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi where they help rebuild from Hurricane Katrina over 10 years ago.
“It changes lives. It really changes lives,” Whiston said of the mission trips back in 2015.
Changing lives has been a calling for Whiston, beyond the church pulpit. He has reached the broader community on a daily basis through his other commitments.
Whiston sat on the board of Habitat for Humanity, and was a member of the Positive School Climate Committee for RSU 21. He likes to keep abreast of the important issues in town that affect community members so he often sat in on meetings of the Lower Village Committee and Lanigan Bridge Committee, and could often be found at other public meetings and community forums.
“Folks are talking about things and I like to be tuned into those things,” Whiston said. ” We can’t solve it all but we have a responsibility to get involved.”
Whiston reflected on his connections to the community last week, saying it has been a great blessing in his life to be here. As a member of the Clergy of the Kennebunks he has helped orchestrate the Kennebunk High School Freshman Breakfasts and the Senior Graduation Breakfasts for many years along with Rotary Club members.
A few years ago, Whiston helped organized a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for Sydney Waitt, a KHS student battling cancer. The proceeds from the spaghetti dinner helped Waitt’s family through her long battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, and last spring Waitt, now healthy, graduated from KHS.
“There’s a saying, ’That which will unite the people is a common devotion or a common enemy,” Whiston said. “Sydney was our common devotion, and cancer was our common enemy.”
Whiston said there were many times when he wasn’t sure that what he could offer to the community was enough, but he knew to do it anyway.
Once a month he and a group of South Church parishioners have volunteered at the Bon Appetit Soup Kitchen in Biddeford for the past 20 years. He said it kept him grounded and got him out into the broader community.
In the past year, he has been taking a group of friends of the late Kate Moxham, a beloved parishioner who died in a bicycle accident last year, to serve at Bon Appetit in her honor.
“We go the first Wednesday of each month, and I’ve had this pool of a dozen or so of ‘Kate’s crew,’” Whiston said.
He gets choked up when he thinks of Moxham, and other parishioners and community members lost during his time here.
“There’s a charge that we all have that we need to be giving for the common good, and that’s what I try to do,” Whiston said. “If we offer what we have, other things will come forward.”
Whiston says he’s most pleased and believes the community is at its best when its members collaborate, and his collaborations have left an indelible imprint on the community, and in turn on Whiston himself.
“None of us can do this alone, nor is that part of God’s plan that we all be soloists. God likely enjoys a symphony of multiple instruments, a tapestry of many colors and textures,” he said.
The church will have an interim minister for the next 18 to 24 months while a permanent replacement is sought carefully, with the input of the parish community.
Whiston is grateful for the opportunities he’s had in Kennebunkport for almost three decades.
“I’m richer, wiser, more compassionate and more empathetic for it,” Whiston said.
What will he miss when he leaves the South Church parish and Kennebunkport?
He’ll miss the people, and he’ll miss walks through town, and walks to the beach. But what he will miss most of all he said, is the children. They represent a future that he won’t see or personally have a hand in, something that strikes him tenderly upon reflection.
“It’s just one more way that it strikes me, that I indeed am moving on and leaving behind folks to live out a future unknown to me,” he said.
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