Containing multitudes: Minister, social justice activist, Marx scholar shakes things up in Old Lyme
Old Lyme — The Rev. Steven R. Jungkeit, senior minister at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, has helped turn the historic house of worship into a home for social justice.
The church itself provided physical sanctuary to a Pakistani couple facing deportation for 212 days in 2018. The year before, the congregation purchased a home in Old Lyme "to welcome refugees in perpetuity," Jungkeit said. Guests have included refugees from Syria and Congo, as well as climate refugees from Puerto Rico in the months following Hurricane Maria. Members of the church community have also helped many more refugees find housing, jobs and, ultimately, the official go-ahead to remain in the United States.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was pinned by the neck under the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the congregation turned its attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.
"There was an understanding that I and the other ministers were going to be at the protests and that, as a community, we were going to do our best to engage the community around us, locally and the surrounding area, to figure out what needs to be done," he said.
Jungkeit, 46, came to Old Lyme in 2013. In addition to serving as minister, he also taught one day a week at Harvard Divinity School until 2019, when a sabbatical was extended by the onset of the COVID pandemic.
Jungkeit sat down for an interview this week on the front lawn of the church with the doors to the grand, 111-year-old building open wide behind him.
Jungkeit is a theologian apt to quote great European philosophers to illustrate his approach to life and religion. But when asked to define his political worldview, he relied on an American literary giant: the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman, whose work reveals that the essence of human beings cannot be separated into parts any more than it can be separated from the spiritual world around them.
"I think all of us, as individuals, 'contain multitudes,'" Jungkeit said, chuckling a bit as if caught off guard by his own use of the timeworn phrase.
Jungkeit's "multitudes" include a conservative evangelical upbringing, a scholarly background rich in the socialist teachings of Karl Marx, grueling experience as a hospital chaplain, and his role as a husband and father of three.
"There's a piece of me that is a liberal Democrat who admires Barack Obama. There's a piece of me that reads Marx and thrills at some of the ways in which he puts the world together. There's a piece of me that can go back to a right-wing praise and worship service that an evangelical church might do, and I recognize that in me," he said.
So he is a "progressive," he said — "but not to the exclusion of other things."
Born in California, Jungkeit was raised by a church music director and a math teacher who moved every five to seven years: first to central Pennsylvania and then to Ohio, outside Cincinnati. He attended Messiah College in Pennsylvania, an Christian institution founded in the Brethren tradition by his great-great-grandfather.
"The best part of that tradition is it's a peace tradition. It's a pacifist tradition," he said.
Messiah is also where he met his wife, Rachael. They married a year after he graduated.
"It's a place I have great affection for," he said of the school that now identifies itself as openly evangelical. "I don't know if I'd wind up there today, but I found teachers there who became very important to me and are important to me still, and who set me on a course I'm grateful for."
That course took him to Yale Divinity School, to a Presbyterian church outside Philadelphia, and back to Yale for a doctorate in religious studies. The completion of the seven-year doctoral process left him with a strong need to get out of his head and "in touch with what was going on" around him.
A chaplaincy at Bridgeport Hospital represented a link between the academic part of him fascinated by Marx's teachings and the ministerial part of him committed to sharing a vision of Christianity with social justice at its core.
Calling Marx "deeply misunderstood," Jungkeit said the crux of the revolutionary's teachings revolved around outrage about what industrialization was doing to human lives, and human bodies in particular.
Jungkeit described going from room to room at the hospital to find "what a really desperate economic situation in Bridgeport was doing to human bodies."
He said he saw the wreckage of shootings, of stabbings, of burns sustained when poor housing led to fires, and of amputations due to complications of diabetes caused by poor nutrition.
His year at Bridgeport Hospital was filled with death, trauma and "ghastly things," he said. But it was important to him because it helped him feel attached to what people were going through.
From there, Jungkeit began lecturing at Harvard Divinity School. One of his earliest courses was titled "Marx and His Readers."
"I thought it was really important, not to convert people to a party or anything like that, but to make sure that people are familiar with that literature, which is so pilloried and so invisible in this country," he said.
According to Jungkeit, the teachings of Marx cannot be understood as "any one, single thing" — again, multitudes — "the way Jesus or Christianity doesn't mean any one, single thing, or Judaism doesn't mean any one, single thing, or Islam doesn't mean any one, single thing."
Another class explored how humans have adjusted to urbanization, while another sought to reimagine "paradise."
"Up there, I had remarkable freedom to kind of construct things that I wanted students to engage with in a creative way," he said. "My course titles often sounded like they had little to do with religion, but they did. They were things I wanted folks who were in religious studies, who were preparing for ministry or were going to be doing some kind of social work, to be thinking about."
Partnership for Social Justice
Over the past nine months, the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme's activism has taken shape in the form of the Lyme-Old Lyme Partnership for Social Justice as a way to keep momentum going after two racial justice rallies last summer.
The group has formed four task forces: education reform, affordable housing, police accountability and New London partnerships.
On the police accountability front, members have promoted Georgetown Law Center's Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program, which encourages police to intervene when another officer's conduct may cause harm. Old Lyme Resident State Trooper Matt Weber said last month that he has started conveying ABLE intervention tactics to the small department and would extend the training to the town's 10 auxiliary summer officers.
Jungkeit described the program as one way to improve the kind of interactions the public has with police while acknowledging that a host of other areas must be addressed in terms of reforming law enforcement in the country.
"Just pragmatically, it does the work of getting knees off necks and keeping bullets out of backs," he said.
An education initiative in collaboration with the Lyme-Old Lyme school system is underway to teach the history of racism and enslavement in the area, according to Jungkeit.
A group of members led by associate minister Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager are creating "witness stones" to commemorate the lives of 14 people who were enslaved in Old Lyme.
Jungkeit also filmed a video series over the winter called "Wheels of Justice: Stories from the Deep North" to tell the stories of enslavement and resistance in Old Lyme, New London, and other area towns.
"By facing into this legacy, it gives us an opportunity to create a different kind of future," he said. "I think we need to do the work of asking why a place like Old Lyme is 96 percent white. That doesn't just happen. That's created."
The issue of systemic racism has come up at meetings of the Old Lyme Board of Selectmen over many months as Democratic Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal sought passage of a resolution to identify racism as a public health crisis. First Selectman Timothy Griswold and Selectman Christopher Kerr have so far failed to bring the issue up for a vote.
Griswold has said he believes a resolution that says the town is in a racism crisis would portray Old Lyme in a "negative way."
In April, Griswold told The Day that Jungkeit and the First Congregational Church have "taken up the cause big time" in Old Lyme, and that the church is the appropriate place for that conversation.
Jungkeit said he believes there is some misunderstanding about the difference between systemic racism, which the resolution seeks to address, and individual racism.
"To say we need to adopt a resolution like this is not to say that individuals living in Old Lyme are closet racists or something like that. That's not what's at stake here," he said.
Systemic racism refers to societal policies and practices that result in unfair advantage for some people and unfair treatment of others based on race. It can manifest in disparities in areas like health care, housing, transportation and environmental resources, among others.
Jungkeit praised his congregation's willingness to do the "powerful work" of addressing inequality. He said he was told early on that the church was filled with people who want to be pushed and like to be challenged.
Social justice was a legacy left by his predecessor, the Rev. David W. Good.
"That's ultimately what drew me here, and those are some of the things that continue to excite me," he said.