One Sunday morning in early 2001, children were seated in the front pews of Orient Congregational Church. The Rev. Dr. Ann Van Cleef stood beside them, recalling a children’s sermon she’d heard at Westhampton Presbyterian Church.
After calling the children to attention, she pulled out a tube of toothpaste and a plate for an interactive sermon.
“A lot of ministers have used the sermon. It’s the one where you empty your tube of toothpaste onto the plate and then you ask the kids to put it back into the tube. The whole idea is it’s just like words — once they come out, you can’t really put them back,” she explained.
Before she even squeezed the toothpaste onto the plate, one child said, “Yeah, we heard this one already.”
That was the first of the Rev. Van Cleef’s many days at Orient Congregational Church, the oldest of approximately 276 United Churches of Christ, a Protestant-Christian denomination, in New York State. The Orient church was founded in 1717 and built in 1843. After delivering that children’s sermon, the Rev. Van Cleef was asked to become its permanent pastor in May 2001.
For her dedication to the Orient community, the Rev. Van Cleef is our choice as The Suffolk Times’ 2018 Community Leader of the Year.
“Often, you say what would be the most important criteria for any minister — it’s really by showing up when you need them, when there’s an issue, when there’s a need,” said the Rev. Freeman Palmer, the UCC’s associate conference minister for congregational development. “I know she has shown up for church in many meaningful ways.”
After spending “17 and two-thirds” years of her life with the Orient church, the Rev. Van Cleef retired earlier this year.
“Our church has been in existence for 300 years, and I know that they will be in existence for at least another 300, doing the same good things that they’ve always done,” she said. “I’m really glad to be part of that journey — for 17 years, anyway. I wish them God’s blessings.”
The Rev. Van Cleef’s tenure at Orient Congregational was second only to that of its first minister, the Rev. Jonathan Barber, who served 22 years.
She said that when she started there, she just wanted to preach and reach out to the community — the same goals any other minister has.
“When I started, I knew it was a small church. It was never my intent to make them into a big church, but just a small church that did things in an excellent way,” she said.
The Rev. Van Cleef received a B.A. from Hofstra University, later earning a master of divinity degree from New Brunswick Theological Seminary and a doctorate of ministry from Hartford Seminary. She met her husband, Bob Van Cleef, in church, and the couple now have three adult children and three grandchildren.
“He’s been my partner in ministry in more ways than you could possibly know,” she said. “Anytime I’ve gotten a bright idea, like, ‘Let’s have a homeless shelter,’ he’s been right there by my side, no questions asked.”
In November, the church held a retirement party for the Rev. Van Cleef. Church member Anne Hopkins, who said she lives near the Orient church, remembers when the couple first moved into the parsonage.
“It’s just incredible to recall what a long journey it has been for Anne and Bob,” she said at the event.
The Rev. Van Cleef taught music in South Fork schools for 33 years, during some of which her teaching overlapped with her pastoral responsibilities. She’s also played the bassoon, clarinet, flute and alto saxophone in local bands, and has co-led the church youth group.
The Rev. Palmer, who represented the UCC at her retirement party, said she brought many talents into the church.
“Preaching, teaching, pastoral, musical, administrative — you name it, she’s got it,” he said. “Not only does she have it, she gives it, fully and freely, for the church, and has wonderfully served Orient Congregational Church.”
One of the achievements in which the reverend takes most pride is partnering with St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport to run the John’s Place homeless shelter.
While she said she’ll miss the day-to-day interactions with her congregants, the Rev. Van Cleef wants the Orient community to know that despite her retirement, she’s staying local and this isn’t goodbye; it’s simply “see you soon.”
“Although I won’t be their pastor, I will always be their friend,” she said.
After retirement, Rev. Van Cleef plans to travel with her husband, making one international and one domestic trip per year. She said she’s already planned a trip to Amsterdam and Vienna, but a date hasn’t been set.
The Orient church has always provided a welcoming environment for the community, she said, and she hopes that will continue in the future.
“All we’re doing is turning a corner,” she said. “There’s more journey still to come.”
Photo caption: The Rev. Dr. Ann Van Cleef at Orient Congregational Church’s blessing of the animals in 2016. (Jeremy Garretson, file photo)
*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year
2017 — Mindy Ryan
2016 — Valerie Shelby and Sonia Spar
2015 — Don Fisher
2014 — Designer show house organizers
2013 — Ron and Doris McGreevy
2012 — Group for the East End
2011 — American Legion Post restoration volunteers
2010 — Peggy Murphy
2009 — North Fork Community Theater
2008 — Lori Luscher
2007 — Committee for Phil McKnight
2006 — Relay for Life organizers
2005 — Merle Levine
2004 — Christine Roache
2003 — Barbara Taylor
2002 — Kim Tetrault
2001 — Elinor May
2000 — Mark Miller
1999 — George Hubbard Sr.
1998 —Ed Siegmann
1997 — Freddie Wachsberger
1996 — Shelley Scoggin
1995 — Craig Richter
1994 — Stewardship Task Force
1993 — Walt Krupski
1992 — The Eklunds
1991 — Bill Grigonis
1990 — Merlon Wiggin
1989 — Jeanne Marriner
1988 — Ray Nine
1987 — Bessie Swann