Allison Smith of Harpswell is the new senior minister at the Congregational Church in Cumberland. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

CUMBERLAND — Allison Smith found her calling as a peacemaker at an early age, and that discovery has informed her life and career ever since.

Deeply concerned about nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War’s final days, the then-18-year-old wrote an essay and traveled to the U.S.S.R. with the National Council of Churches in 1988. Upon returning home to North Carolina, she spoke about her trip at several churches, and from that was born an interest in being a minister.

“Part of my calling is to help people see … another person as sister or brother, despite differences,” said Smith, the new senior minister at the Congregational Church in Cumberland, in an interview Dec. 18.

The Harpswell woman, whose husband Gregory Greenleaf teaches English at Greely High, accomplished that by leading a prior church to become an Open and Affirming Congregation that welcomes people of all sexual orientations. The Cumberland church undertook that designation around 2001.

Smith replaces Diane Bennekamper, who in 1998 became the first openly gay person called to a church in Maine when she became co-pastor at the Cumberland church. Early in 2018, with Bennekamper’s retirement approaching, Smith became the church’s transitional minister. Having been trained as an interim minister, “part of my background is to help churches in times of change,” Smith said.

Bennekamper retired in September, and the church chose Smith – who graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1996 – as its senior minister the following month.

Smith called Cumberland “such a vibrant community that believes so deeply in putting their love in action. That resonates so much with my own sense of ministry and call. I’ve loved the people here.”

Having served churches in Bethesda, Maryland, and in Wilton, Smith was most recently interim pastor in Newcastle, Phippsburg and Kennebunk.

“I was moving from community to community around Maine,” she said. “… It was starting to feel like, ‘it’s time to put roots down.’ And I feel like the spirit really opened up the possibility for me to be here.”

Her new role comes during “a period of dramatic change,” said Smith, who has noticed the faith community and American culture drifting apart in recent decades.

“What we offer, that I think is so important right now, is a sense of community and spirituality in these tumultuous times that we live in now,” she said. “And a place where people can find hope.”

Being a church these days is challenging, Smith said: “It is exclusive forms of Christianity which seem to have a loud voice at times when that is not what Jesus was about at all. We are a place of diverse perspectives – going beyond labels to follow Jesus and put love in action and work for a world of justice, hope and peace for all God’s children.  ”

Smith’s work in building cultural bridges included founding the Maine Conference United Church of Christ Anti-Racism Resource Team in 2015. “We were doing a lot of work in the very beginning on the situation in Maine of disproportionate minority contact in the criminal justice system,” which involved collaborations with the NAACP and other organizations dedicated to racial justice, she said.

“Racism unfortunately has been part of our history as a nation,” Smith said. “There’s work to be done at every age and with every generation, around working for justice and inclusivity, and celebrating diversity.”

To that end, the Cumberland church this summer facilitated temporary housing for five families from Africa seeking asylum.

“This community does that; they just put love in action,” Smith said. “That’s part of what gives me joy, and makes me feel like I’m in the right place.”

Martha Leggat, one of the church’s approximately 350 congregants, agrees that Smith is where she should be. She praised Smith’s “vision for what she wants the church to be, which I think is a very inclusive congregation,” adding Smith has invested much in the church’s youth programming, and in community outreach in order to bring in new members.

“She has an energy in her sermons, and her presence in the church, that I think is really uplifting for a lot of people,” Leggat said.

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