First Universalist Church welcomes new minister

First Universalist Church of Southold has a new minister, Valerie Freseman.

The Manhattan native took helm of the church in August and is settling into her new role on the North Fork. 

She said she was drawn to the sense of community within the tight-knit parish. “It’s a wonderful community to minister to,” Ms. Freseman said last week in an interview at Holy Trinity Church in Greenport.

The Episcopal church has opened its doors to the congregation since it lost the historic “Church on the Bend” to a late-night electrical fire in March 2015.

Ms. Freseman, 48, previously served as a chaplain resident at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Conn., a congregational intern at a Unitarian church in Cleveland and as a youth coordinator for two parishes in northern New Jersey.

She earned a master’s in Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014.

Ministry is her second career.

“I found [Unitarian Universalism] pretty late in life,” Ms. Freseman said.

In 2011, she found herself at a crossroads in her professional life. Her background is in nonprofit fundraising and stewardship and she’s been working for the 92nd Street Y.

That year, several defining moments shaped her path. She lost her father after a long illness.

“I felt disenchanted with my career and how directly I was helping people,” she said. “I remember getting angry. I got this feeling that I should enlarge myself.”

A friend made a suggestion: Why don’t you go to graduate school?

It was around that time she began attending services at a Unitarian Universalist parish in her neighborhood. Ms. Freseman, who described her spirituality as leaning toward more mysticism and meditation, said she was moved by the music and people she found there. “People were welcoming, in the sense that I could be who I wanted to be and keep growing,” she said.

It was also a growing community focused on social justice and “national anxieties,” on issues like race. “[The community] was very much focused on repairing the world at the same time,” she said.

On the East End, she hopes to forge relationships not only with her congregation, but across faiths as well. “We can work together to bring peace,” she said.

Plans to rebuild the Main Road church are in progress, with an expected groundbreaking in 2019. Ms. Freseman is currently living in an on-site parsonage that was spared from the flames. “It’ll be really exciting to see that happen. I can’t wait to be woken up in the morning by the sounds of construction,” she said with a smile.

She hopes to help guide churchgoers toward a new vision to match their long-awaited new building. “[Unitarian Universalism] is a very progressive faith,” that’s accepting of differences, Ms. Freseman said.

Aside from typical church uses — mass services and weddings — she hopes to serve the community in charitable and educational ways, too. “We love to have debates and lectures and pore over issues,” she said, adding that she’d love to see the space used for intellectual exploration. “I think it’ll evolve as we evolve into the space.”

She said she’s been inspired by the congregation’s resilience.

“There’s a sense of doggedness, to be able to hold that anxiety and to live through the defeat and see the dawn, so to speak. It’s admirable,” she said.

It shows during Sunday worship, where everyone is invited to “pray out loud.”

“If someone has a specific joy or concern, they get up and they say everything from ‘A few of my chickens died and I’m really sad’ to ‘I passed this exam and I’m super excited.’ Everyone shares in that. It’s unique.”

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