PITTSFIELD – Reverend Joel Huntington’s childhood was steeped in alcohol.
A native of Richmond, Ind., Huntington grew up with an alcoholic father, and his only real escape was when he and his mother went to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in town on Sunday mornings.
“Going to mass was the only normal and safe thing my mom and I did,” he told The Eagle. “I had this experience with God and decided that the clergy was my way forward.”
This path is coming to an end. After 32 years as pastor of the South Congregational Church, Huntington is retiring.
His service in Pittsfield – roughly the size of his hometown on the Ohio border – ends Jan. 30, when he will lead his final Sunday service at the South Street house of worship. The day before there will be a farewell meeting in the parking lot behind the church at 1 p.m.
Monsignor Michael Shershanovich, pastor of St. Joseph’s North Street Catholic Church, said he came to admire and appreciate Huntington as a “great pastor.”
“To me, Joel is the man the prophet Micah speaks of. He loves dearly, he acts righteously, and he walks humbly with his God. Joel is a role model for all clergy,” Shershanovich said.
Trip to Pittsfield
Huntington, 69, grew up Catholic only to attend and graduate from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana, before heading to two different seminary schools from 1977 to 1982. After graduating in 1982 from Andover-Newton Theological School in Newton, he was ordained a minister and became an associate pastor in a small church in Quincy. In 1989 he moved west to the Berkshires to take on pastoral duties at the South Congregational Church.
Almost immediately, one of the primary missions of the church was to address food insecurity in the Pittsfield area. In 1990, South Church and St. Joseph opened a communal kitchen providing weekly meals to the needy. Since the pandemic hit, the kitchen – now operated solely from the South Congregational Church – has provided take-out meals serving 60-75 people each week.
That’s how Berkshire’s largest food retailer, The South Community Food Pantry, developed, serving 600 to 650 households each week, according to Huntington. As a child, he knew all about the limited food options at home.
“I have all these memories of mayo sandwiches on white bread. My whole ministry has been about nurturing people’s souls and bodies,” he said. “I love serving people and being with the pantry…where Jesus would be.”
South Congregational Church is best known as the distribution point for Thanksgiving Angels. On the Monday before the holiday, dozens of volunteers from more than 20 faith-based organizations distribute groceries collected the previous weeks for a cook-your-own turkey dinner to nearly 1,500 households.
In addition to Sunday service, school and food programs, nearly 20 church groups and community organizations met regularly at the South Congregational Church before the pandemic.
Additionally, the church in 1992 started a pastoral internship program for area students attending seminary. To date, Huntington said 17 young men and women have used South Church as a training ground for future ministry.
“They bring new ideas and new experiences to our church. We had a transgender student who came from Georgia and the congregation learned to accept him by knowing him as a person,” Huntington said.
Huntington has also worked closely with Reverend Jenny Gregg and the “Cathedral of the Beloved” outdoor worship community, which meets on Sunday afternoons on the lawn of St. Joseph’s Church. This ministry provides meals, support and compassion to those who are homeless and struggling in Pittsfield.
Huntington has served on several collaborative groups such as the executive council of the Pittsfield Council of Congregations. He is also the past president of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing and helped establish the Emergency Fuel Fund, which provides 100 gallons of fuel oil or other necessary heating energy to families in need.
Huntington’s 32-year ministry was also one of knowing the importance of upkeep of the church. Over the past decade, church leaders have conducted two fundraising campaigns totaling $335,000. The money was used to modernize the 172-year-old church and 87-year-old parish house with a new roof and repairs to the steeple. Other maintenance work included an exterior paint job, installation of 100 solar panels and renovation of the kitchen, which provides meals for weekly community dinners and other functions.
Huntington also knew the importance of working with other pastors and their churches. Right next to South Church is the First Baptist Church. The pastor, Reverend Sheila D. Sholes-Ross, said she felt welcomed by Huntington when she came from North Carolina eight years ago.
“I have loved participating in various church programs/community events with Joel. He was never afraid to say ‘Amen’ to the messages I offered…which touched my heart so much,” Sholes- wrote Ross in an email.
Huntington said that with no daily schedule to follow after retirement, he plans to spend the next year sleeping a lot and hiking as he and his wife Tora move to Richmond. He leaves with a heavy heart.
“I will miss all the relationships that have been forged in my heart,” he said. “This congregation is so open-minded and ready to serve as they come together to listen and grow.”