On Sunday, the congregation of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Robert Beecher Stuart’s ordination as minister of word and sacrament. Late last month, Mr. Stuart, pastor of the church from 1981 to 1998, traveled to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he marked the anniversary with his classmates.
In a wide-ranging discussion at his house in Springs this week, Mr. Stuart looked back on 50 years, noting some profound changes in the church and the larger world over the past half-century.
At Princeton last month, “I saw several men whom I had known rather well. I say ‘men’ because at the time, our Presbyterian Church was just in the process of having women be ordained to ministry, but it would take a while for them to get into the seminary,” he said.
Born in Minneapolis, Mr. Stuart grew up in suburban St. Louis. He earned a master’s degree in American history at the University of Wisconsin. Being drafted, he recalled, was the catalyst for an unexpected turn in his life. While his parents were elders in the Presbyterian Church, he said, “no one in my family had been a minister. I hadn’t given it a thought.”
As a conscientious objector, he was drafted into civilian work in a Kansas City, Kan., hospital, where he served for two years as an attendant in the psychiatric ward. “It was just a great experience,” he said. “That was a turning point. I decided to change direction and go into the ministry. That’s how I went to Princeton Seminary in the fall of 1959.”
Mr. Stuart led congregations in Wheeling, W.Va., where he married, and Ringwood, N.J., where he spent 15 years. He had one son, divorced in 1979, and then filled a one-year interim position in Bellingham, Wash. At the time, “I didn’t know anything about Amagansett or, for that matter, much about Long Island,” he recalled. “I was flown out for an interview, got the job, and all of my belongings were in storage in New Jersey so it was not hard for the church to move me here. It turned out to be the perfect move, just wonderful.”
Leading the church in Amagansett, he recalled, was richly rewarding. “I loved calling on people, going to their homes. I would do that when there was a crisis, or somebody was sick, and of course visit them in the hospital if that was the case. Most afternoons, I would be out calling on people in the congregation. I heard all these wonderful stories of older residents in Amagansett that come from the old families. I enjoyed that socially as well as religiously.”
A proponent of a church that is active in the community, Mr. Stuart became involved in President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty programs in the 1960s and ’70s, which was met with some criticism. In Amagansett, his professional and personal lives became more deeply entwined with his involvement in H.I.V./AIDS work. He became a pastoral volunteer for the Long Island Association for AIDS Care, and got the church involved as well.
“As a corollary, I got involved with gay rights issues, and I’m gay myself. I came out to myself in 1985, not because of the AIDS situation so much, but that was a part of the picture as it was developing. That was an important part of my ministry in terms of community organization and involvement here,” he said.
“With my heavy involvement with H.I.V./AIDS and gay advocacy, there were a few people in the Amagansett church that were a little nervous. But they were never hostile. When I learned that there were a few people talking and upset about that, or wondering where I was going with this, I had them over to the house for coffee one afternoon, and we talked it out. The point is, sometimes there are bumps in the road, and I always felt as a leader, the best way to deal with that is to confront it. I always found people responsive, even when they differed with me in what I was saying or doing.”
A member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop for the past 30 years, Mr. Stuart is at present writing a memoir about his religious vocation and sexuality.
In retirement, Mr. Stuart remains active as an officer at Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor, where he teaches a Bible class and assists at the altar. His involvement in a mission partnership with the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Cuba has taken him to that country several times, and he will attend a conference there next month. “This has become a very rich part of my life in my retirement,” he said.