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New pastor comes to historic downtown church after its search of more than two years

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Meet Pastor Sean Murray, the new minister at First Congregational Church of Riverhead, who comes to town with a message of love, laughter and a belief in angels among us.

The First Congregational Church of Riverhead has a new pastor.

The Rev. Dr. Sean B. Murray takes the pulpit there Sunday for the first time as minister.

Murray comes to the Riverhead church after more than 12 years as pastor at the Community Church of Syosset. He holds a master’s of divinity from Union Theological Seminary (1991) and a doctorate from the New York Theological Seminary.

Born in Patchogue and raised in Great River, Murray, 53, said he is happy to be back in Suffolk and excited about coming east to the Riverhead.

“It brings back some of the best of my roots and yet challenges me with the novelty of a genuinely fresh location very much on the verge of wonderful change,” Murray said Friday.

The 178-year-old church is “a solid fit” for him, the new pastor said.

“I’m very pleased to be called to a church that’s as active in social ministry as it is,” Murray said, citing the downtown church’s soup kitchen, ESL classes and its status as an “open and affirming” church within the United Church of Christ. “It’s a very welcoming, progressive church,” Murray said.

“I’d like the church to be a house of God, where everyone feels God’s embrace, knows they’re welcome and has opportunities for service,” the pastor said, “and a place where the kids love to be.”

Murray feels a special calling to ministry for children, teens and young adults. He is a longtime board member of the L.I. Protestant Campus Ministry, which serves college students at Long Island’s college campuses.

The hearts of the children are most open to the presence of God, Murray says. “If you’re still fearing the monster under the bed you need to know you’re in the embrace of Jesus,” he said.

“It’s a genuinely good theology for all of us to learn that there are angels in our midst. We all need help every now and again and God blesses us with people to help us out, some known and some not,” Murray said. “These are the faces of hope and these are God’s messengers, which is really where the word ‘angel’ comes from. Angels are the spokespeople for God, the doers, the presence of the divine community in human and in spirit form,” Murray said. “Believe that there are angels in your midst.”

Then, with a hearty laugh, he adds: “And so I wave at people when I drive around.”

Murray said he laughs a lot and loves to laugh.”Joy is an important part of what we do. The joy of the Lord is our strength.”

Murray’s diverse background includes work as a waiter; a writer, copy editor and photo editor at Religion News Service; a late 1980s stint at the American Bible Society; and work in the UCC national offices for homelessness and economic justice programs and its LGBTQ ministries.

Before entering seminary, he worked for A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, an interdenominational organization that ministers to the faith-based needs of national parks visitors throughout the U.S. His work took him to Denali National Park in Alaska, Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas and Everglades National Park in southern Florida, where led Sunday worship services and Bible studies.

His love for the great outdoors drew him to the East End as well.

He is an avid sailor and gardener. He’s looking forward to his first canoe trip on the Peconic. For the past week or so, settling in at the church parsonage, in between unpacking boxes, he’s been exploring and assessing his new yard, wondering what will emerge from the earth come spring, and thinking about where he might plant a garden.

“We are so excited about Pastor Sean,” said Greg Conrad, who served on the First Congregational Church’s pastoral search committee.

“His enthusiasm, his deep spirituality…” Conrad said. “He just really seemed in tune with God, with the higher power,” he said. “He’s got a great personality and a great sense of humor. And the fact that he’s fluent in Spanish was also a plus.” Murray completed a year of study in Madrid as an undergraduate and an academic semester in Cuba while in seminary. He also speaks French and German.

“He was exactly what we were looking for,” Conrad said.

The seven-member search committee worked for more than two years, reviewing the qualifications of 51 applicants and initially interviewing 20 people. They brought 12 applicants in for a second interview and then narrowed it down to “the final four,” Conrad said.

“At that point, we felt that, no matter who we chose, we would have a good qualified minister,” Conrad said. The committee’s first vote unanimous.

The church believes it’s found a spiritual leader not just for its own congregation but for the wider community as well, Conrad said. “It’s a gain for the whole community, no matter what denomination you are.”

First Congregational Church is located on East Main Street, across from the Riverhead Grill. Sunday worship service is at 10 a.m. (Church office telephone: 631-727-2621.)

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