Editor’s note: People of Faith is an occasional question-and-answer series highlighting various leaders and personalities in the local faith community.
Of all the tasks on the Rev. Dennis McCarty’s to-do list on a recent afternoon, one seemed pretty significant — putting the sun high in its place.
Well, figuratively, anyway.
He actually was standing on chairs while hanging an artsy sun banner at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus building at 7850 W. Goeller Boulevard.
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For the past 12 years, he has basked in the limelight as pastor of a small-but-growing religious group that has moved somewhat from the community’s shadows to a front-and-center visible advocate shining light on everything from environmental issues to minority rights, including those of same-sex couples.
Technically, McCarty takes no credit for that higher profile. But he acknowledged during a recent chat about his upcoming retirement June 22 that a long-running column on The Republic’s editorial page perhaps has given Unitarian Universalist thought and mostly liberal view a solid hearing in the mainstream.
He acknowledged also that his words, sometimes critical of many Christians’ knowledge of Scripture and its foundation, sometimes have stirred anger among many of Bartholomew County’s followers of Jesus.
“I believe that, with any book, you have to read it honestly,” he said, sitting in his sanctuary while the sun cast shadows across the seats. “And you can’t cherry-pick passages. Now, I know (Christian) fundamentalists will tell me exactly the same thing.
“But you really have to find out how those passages first got written down — and the setting and context.”
McCarty reflected on one of his biggest literal life passages, if you will: Turning 65 and retiring from the ministry next month. He is nontraditional enough that his first message locally was delivered after he had the choir play “Winds of Change” by heavy metal band The Scorpions.
You seem unafraid of controversy. Name one of the first times your views angered local residents.
Shortly after I arrived, somebody had vandalized the house of a local gay couple (in December 2003). (Columbus resident) Sarah Grey organized a Stop the Hate rally (that attracted 75 people) at City Hall.
And I was “dumb enough” to say something publicly (in support of the rally) and get quoted in The Republic. And boy, were there some letters to the editor written about me! That was a great introduction to this town.
And that was really ironic because I was really homophobic as a youth (growing up in a devout Christian family in Grand Junction, Colorado, and Utah).
You met weekly with a group of Christian ministers for breakfast when you first came to Columbus in 2003 to serve. So did you disagree with them much during those discussions?
There were and are some issues where, if we chose to, we could fight like cats and dogs. But there also was some good, common ground.
You had some issues with some Christians as a young person who was bullied?
I was a shy, fat kid. In the early 1960s, during the civil rights movement, it wasn’t lost on me that some of the same (church) kids who were hassling girls and telling racial jokes — not that I always was a whole lot better — and calling President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson names were the same kids who regularly were beating me up in middle school.
Some of the ones hardest on me were the church kids.
You have addressed Christian topics in a positive light?
Well, guess who I’m talking about (in my message) May 31st? (Christian leader and Nazi dissident) Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You have to remember that my job as a pastor is not always to make even my own people happy.
Because there are some people in this congregation who are very bitter about the Christian church. And they’re people who, while growing up, have been burned in some way by the Christian church.
People such as Father Clem (Davis, a friend and longtime pastor at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, and once McCarty’s opponent at a local spiritual debate) has said of us (Unitarians) that he really mourns that fact.
You’ll still be working on various writing projects in retirement?
I’ll continue to work on 30-minute presentations I’m doing. One thing I’m working on is, “An Evening With Hosea Ballou,” who was a prominent Universalist theologian. He was writing mostly from 1800 to 1840.
The centerpiece of his theology, “A Treatise on Atonement,” is screamingly funny. He was kind of like Mark Twain 40 years before there was a Mark Twain.
Nobody cares much about theology anymore. So I’ll have to make it palatable.
Any regrets as you look back on your local leadership?
Oh, I wish I’d done more. I actually wish I’d been out on street corners and generally been more active and making more stuff happen.
But I’d like to think in my time here that I’ve planted at least a few trees the fruit of which I will not eat — and maybe I’ve dug a few wells from which I will not drink.
Age: 65 next month.
Role: Retiring pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus.
Hometown: Grand Junction, Colorado, where he grew up in a devout Christian home. He was drawn to the Unitarian Universalist Church by its passion regarding social justice.
Family: Wife Kate and cat Ghandi. Two grown daughters.
Education: University of Utah with bachelor’s degree in English, Meadville Lombard Theological School master’s degree in divinity.