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Community and children invited back to church

FALLS VILLAGE — Michelle Wiltshire-Clement, the new pastor at the Falls Village Congregational Church, describes herself as “eclectic.”Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, her family moved to New York City because her mother was looking for a place to live “with more, and less flat.”Her father is “very Catholic,’ her mother an Episcopalian. Further back she’s got a grandmother who is a Jehovah’s Witness, and a grandfather who was an Anglican deacon, traveling around Trinidad. Wiltshire-Clement did her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., concentrating in science, theater and religion.And as she continued her religious training at Union Theological Seminary in New York, she settled on the United Church of Christ (which includes the Congregational Church) because she saw it as the most appropriate place.“It’s the most unifying, welcoming all without conditions,” she said.“There’s no sense of ‘we want you here because you are this or that,’” she added. “There are no barriers set up.”Asked if her theater training comes in handy in the pulpit, she laughed (a frequent occurence) and said she learned the practical applications of running a church service — such as no large arm movements — in public speaking class at the seminary.The theater experience had a deeper effect. At Sarah Lawrence, she continued, participants in the theater program are encouraged to go far into themselves. “They drag your inner soul out. There are a lot of tears and hardships.“People who become their characters go forward because they are using what God gave them.”Wiltshire-Clement interned at The Riverside Church in New York, getting involved with a young adult ministry program that grew from two participants to 300 during her stay.She laughed when she recalled her assumption that Riverside’s congregation of 2,700 people was the standard size.She also worked at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where she got involved with human and immigrant rights; the First Congregational Church in Stamford; and as a “supply preacher,” filling in for vacations or as a short-term interim pastor.She traveled to enough churches, she added, that sometimes she had to write a note to herself reminding her of where she was.Wiltshire-Clement, her husband, Mark Dvorozniak, and children Uriel and Gabryel, will continue to live in New York, traveling to Falls Village weekly.Her varied experience has taught her to listen, she said. “I’m interested in finding out what people want. If I listen then I’m not applying my own agenda.”She has a few ideas about her role in Falls Village. “I’m interested in community building. It will take a little while to get things moving, but the enthusiasm is there.“I want children there, and if they’re running up and down the aisles I’ll just speak louder.“And you know, you can ask them [the children] later what was said and they will know.“I’m worried that children might get stuck in the digital age and not learn to think for themselves.”She is a firm believer in the power of personal interaction. “You see someone give a dollar to a homeless person, and keep moving. They are invisible.“But if you stop and ask the homeless person how they are doing, you are seeing God in them. To acknowledge that they are not unseen, that means more than the dollar.”With the youth group at Riverside — which incldued a 77-year-old woman — she organized all sorts of activities designed to facilitate human contact. “Whatever it is — apple picking — wherever you are, God is.”Her interest in including children in the church’s life stems from her experience in Winnipeg, where a bus would come around on Sundays and take the neighborhood children — no parents — to a Baptist church. The children all wanted to go. “It broke up the week and made the day special. That bus was always full.“And I found that my imagination worked better when I went to church.“Later I realized it was a connection with the Holy Spirit, and I began to learn more about myself.”Life is more than work or school, and home life, she continued.“And I want other people to experience it.”

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