FAIR HAVEN — After a nearly three-year search, First Congregational Church of Fair Haven has found its new pastor. Bishop James L. Mills Sr. accepted the position of pastor last month. Mills replaces the Rev. Chris Heintz, who served in an interim position after longtime pastor, the Rev. Marsh Hudson-Knapp, retired in 2016 after 36 years.
Mills brings more than 20 years experience as a minister and administrator to Fair Haven. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, ministry is in Mills’ blood. His grandmother served as a pastor in the African-Methodist Episcopal Church for 20 years. Mills said family members recall him delivering his first sermon at the age of 8.
The job might be new, but Mills and his two teenage children are no strangers to the area. He first visited Vermont in 2008 when he took a trip to Rutland while recovering from cancer. A lover of sleepy New England towns — a love, he joked, that was inspired by watching episodes of “Murder She Wrote” — he immediately fell in love with the area.
“In many ways, cancer brought me to Vermont, and the people healed me,” he said.
Mills says his decision to take the job at Fair Haven was an example of “the spirit at work.” He had all but accepted a job offer at a nonprofit in Las Vegas, Nevada, when a call came through from Jenna Stiles, the church pastor search committee chairwoman.
“I was attracted to the church by their enthusiasm and open hands praying,” he said.
“They are people who want to be in the community. They are a community-focused people, which is who I am.”
He acknowledged the powerful dynamic of his being an African-American man leading an all-white congregation.
“I think it speaks volumes that, at this moment, they would pick an African-American man to lead them.”
Any notion that the color of Mills’ skin would be an issue for the some in the congregation of around 150 is not evident in weekly attendance numbers, which have, according to Mills, doubled to between 50 and 60 people since his appointment in December.
“They’ve doubled and then some,” said Stiles, who has been a member of the congregation for 10 years. “It’s like the church has come alive again.”
Service in the community, especially around issues of social justice and inclusion, is dear to Mills. Prior to accepting the pastorship in Fair Haven, he served as administrative bishop at the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a multi-denominational, multinational, primarily African-American group of Christian leaders and laity who practice a theology of radical inclusivity, which engages and ministers to individuals on the margins of society.
Mills hopes to bring those principles to the Fair Haven community, where issues of poverty, opioid addiction and an aging population are impossible to ignore.
He said his goal is to make the church a place of refuge where people living in those margins can know they are loved and needed. “Even just sitting with them and building trust is a great first step.”
Mills said the congregation is already doing good work, noting its Laundry Love initiative, which provides clean clothes to resource-challenged individuals in the community.
In addition, he’s begun paying home visits to elderly church members who can no longer attend weekly services.
Looking ahead, Mills and Stiles are eager to make their congregation more active and visible in the greater Fair Haven community.
“What I hope to bring the community is a sense that everyone is welcome in the house of the lord,” he said. “We’re not looking for perfection. We’re all far from perfect — we’re trying to make progress.”