Jesus and John Denver

By Randy Noles

Rev. Shawn Garvey, now in the pulpit at Winter Park’s oldest church, is a theologian who draws inspiration from the gospels as well as modern music about social justice.

Shawn Garvey_WP_004

Jesus, the gospels say, demanded social justice, railed against oppression of the poor and urged his followers to make a difference in the world. So did Seeger, Dylan, Baez, Chapin, the New Christie Minstrels and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Of course, these ‘60s-era folksingers never became deities. Still, their influence was profoundly important to young Shawn Garvey, a native New Englander whose father was a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister.

Consequently, Garvey grew up in a household filled with songs of protest and praise. Both musical genres made a lasting impression.

“These [folk] performers seemed to be saying something important, something that resonated with me emotionally” he says. “What they were saying mirrored what my father was saying from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. They both moved people.”

Garvey, 44, was recently named senior minister at Winter Park’s oldest and arguably most historically significant house of worship. First Congregational Church of Winter Park, founded in 1884, became a UCC affiliate in 1957 with the union of the Congregational and Evangelical and Reformed denominations.

Although local congregations are autonomous, the UCC holds generally liberal positions on such social issues as reproductive rights, gay marriage and gender equality. Therefore, Garvey’s affinity for message-laden folk songs about the downtrodden isn’t particularly far afield.

But of all the ‘60s and ‘70s folkies, young Garvey latched on to the one who was probably the least controversial and the most commercially successful: John Denver. As a child he taught himself to play the guitar and tried to learn every song from a well-worn Denver songbook.

Later, as a minister, he became proficient enough to perform with such nationally known artists as Livingston Taylor, younger brother of James Taylor and a folk icon in his own right. “Liv was very encouraging,” says Garvey. “He told me to keep doing what I was doing.”

He also teamed with Steve Weisberg, John Denver’s original guitarist, to stage a two-man tribute show to the prolific hit maker and environmental activist, who was killed in 1997 when a private plane he was flying crashed off the coast of Southern California.

“Steve called me in 2009 after hearing my performance of a John Denver song I’d posted on Facebook,” recalls Garvey. “He said, ‘I can really hear John in your voice.’ I always love to hear that.”

The pair presented their first concert at the church Garvey pastored, Stanley Congregational Church in Chatham, N.J., and have reunited several times since. Weisberg shares humorous and poignant memories of the singer and Garvey sings a selection of familiar standards, such as “Annie’s Song,” “Country Roads” and others.

“I hope to get Steve to Winter Park this spring,” says Garvey, whose guitar rests alongside a wall of shelves in his church office — and whose singing voice does sound eerily like Denver’s.

Shawn Garvey_WP_003
Garvey was attracted to the music of socially conscious folksingers ever since he was a child. A devotee of John Denver, he has performed Denver tribute shows with the singer’s original bassist.

Garvey was born in Concord, N.H., and is the fourth ordained minister on his father’s side of the family. In his youth, his father led churches in Connecticut, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey.

Though it seemed certain that Garvey would follow in his father’s footsteps, his path to a ministry of his own wasn’t lacking detours along the way. After he graduated from high school in Belmont, Mass., he enrolled at Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus, where he planned to major in vocal performance.

He later switched to philosophy “after I realized I didn’t have the constitution required to make it to Broadway.”

After graduation, he enrolled at Andover Newton Theological School near Boston. But he admits that he wasn’t ready to make the commitment required, and didn’t return after his first year.

“I didn’t fall away, but I will say that I got very lost,” Garvey says. “I went to Vermont, where my parents were living, and took four years off. I sang in a band, bought a motorcycle and worked in a shipping warehouse. Menial, part-time things.”

Garvey says his decision to return to Andover Newton wasn’t the result of any particular divine revelation. Rather it was the accumulation “of many, many voices” — mainly from friends and family — encouraging him to “stop goofing off” and find a direction in life.

He returned to seminary in 1997. And this time — a little older, a little wiser and with a sense of purpose — he stuck with it..

While still a student, Garvey was asked to serve as interim pastor for a small Methodist-affiliated church in hardscrabble Pawlet, Vt., about three-and-a-half hours northwest of Boston. That experience, he says, provided an education that he never could have gotten in a classroom.

“I grew up in affluent communities like Winter Park,” Garvey recalls. “This was very far afield from what I was used to. These families were not wealthy; many of them were working on farms that were generations old. I learned a lot about giving when you don’t have very much to give. I learned how to minister to people through illness and death.”

He also learned how to run a church, manage a budget and delegate authority. And he enjoyed the rural setting and the circa 1870s parsonage that he occupied on weekends while attending classes during the week.

“The people in Pawelt very graciously accepted me,” says Garvey, who recalls spending a lot of time in a bowling alley around which community life seemed to revolve in small-town Vermont. “I felt in my element.”

He graduated with a Masters Degree in Divinity in 2000 and married Kathy Saia, whom he had met the previous year through He pastored several churches before landing at Stanely, which established a reputation as leading edge in a variety of ways.

The church adopted an “Open and Affirming” statement that explicitly welcomed LGBT members and touted itself as “a progressive church of radical welcome, committed to social and environmental justice.” It also participated in the GreenFaith Certification Program, the first-ever interfaith environmental certification program for houses of worship.

During Garvey’s six-year stint in Chatham, he appeared in a concert production of Godspell and recorded several albums, including one called Signs and Wonders. The songs were about “the beauty of the natural world, and the things around us that we see or don’t see that perhaps give us a sense of wonder and, hopefully, purpose.”

When the Winter Park opening came up, Garvey was interested because 600-member First Congregational seemed to be “a little bastion of New England Congregationalism” in the South. “Winter Park even looks like New England,” he adds. “And the church was a fit for me theologically. It embodied many things that are important to me.”

The temperate climate and the adjacency to the attractions were plusses as well, especially for a family with young children. He and Kathy, a former fashion buyer and now a Weight Watchers instructor, have two sons, Ryan, 8, and Cooper, 6.

First Congregational’s own Open and Affirming policy, which was adopted three years ago with virtually no dissent, its commitment to social justice and its renowned musical program “all spoke volumes about this church,” he says.

Among the discoveries that fascinated Garvey most when researching Winter Park was the 125-year connection between the church and Rollins College, which he recognized as a unique opportunity for joint programming and a powerful confirmation of his denomination’s longstanding commitment to higher education.

Edward P. Hooker, the first pastor, was also the first president of the college, which the church founded. The first classes were held in the church’s original Carpenter Gothic sanctuary, which was replaced in 1923 by the impressive Colonial Revival structure facing South Interlachen Avenue.

Finally, Garvey noted, for all of First Congregational’s progressive stances, there was something quaintly traditional about it that many churches in the Northeast lacked.

“The ethic and the ethos are different in the South,” he says. “Sunday morning has lost some sanctity in the North, but here it’s still important to families that they go to church.”

He hopes that many of those families — particularly those who’ve become disillusioned by rigid and intolerant ideologies — will find their way to First Congregational.

He plans to spread the word through a variety of means, including social media — he actually encourages congregants to send tweets during his sermons — that a church exists where “no one will tell you what to think” and intellectual exploration is encouraged.

But don’t expect a concert every Sunday. In fact, Garvey doesn’t often perform in church because “I don’t want it to become the Shawn show.” He does, however, expect to break out the 12-string from time to time and to possibly invite some of his folksinging friends, such as Taylor and Weisberg, to visit.

“We want to create buzz,” Garvey says. “We want to open the doors to the community, and the minute you walk in, you’ll feel good being here and will want to come back.”

The goateed Garvey, who sometimes sports a subtle earring and often uses the word “awesome!” as a descriptor, enjoys woodworking and describes himself as “completely addicted” to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He watches all the extended versions back-to-back on his birthday every year.

His blog “The Spiritual Smackdown: Keepin’ It Real with the Rev,” allows him to explore real-world theological questions (“Do we really want to believe in a God that is the architect of suffering and tragedy?”) and to issue calls to action (“How can we not realize that we have only one opportunity to make our mark on the world, on a life, and for the betterment of others?”)

Not surprisingly, a gig at a vibrant “big-steeple” church in the heart of one of Florida’s most beautiful cities was considered highly desirable, and First Congregational’s search committee had an abundance of candidates from which to choose. Often, the work of such committees becomes acrimonious as supporters of one candidate or another align in various camps.

“But after we interviewed Shawn, we just didn’t even want to interview anyone else,” says committee member Sally McArthur. “There was such a sense of genuineness about him. He seemed like a perfect fit. We knew that he was just right for us.”

First Congregational’s Colonial Revival sanctuary is a Winter Park landmark. It was built in 1925, replacing the original Carpenter Gothic church where Rollins College first held classes.
First Congregational’s Colonial Revival sanctuary is a Winter Park landmark. It was built in 1925, replacing the original Carpenter Gothic church where Rollins College first held classes.

Share This Post