“Everyone will be welcome when they walk in the door,” said the Rev. Dr. Rayner “Rusty” Hesse Jr., the new pastor at the Bethany Beach Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “We don’t stand on ceremony.”
Hesse became the church’s pastor less than two weeks ago and has already had the opportunity to gush about his new post.
“We do believe everyone is welcome at communion. We don’t distinguish as to whether you’re a child or an adult. As long as the parent says it’s alright, the child can receive communion. You don’t have to be a member of the parish here, either, to receive communion.
“I think that’s so important, because a lot of churches tend to be narrow in their vision as to who can be a member,” he said. “It’s very easy to become involved here and become a member — you just have to state your intentions. There’s no requirement about giving… Many people who are here are not Disciples originally.”
In fact, Hesse himself is not a Disciple; rather he grew up in and has served in the Episcopal Church.
“I want to emphasize how much faith the congregation is putting in me by thinking outside the box. I’m not a traditional Disciples minister. That just tells you the type of congregation they are — they want to bring people in.”
He graduated from the seminary in 1982, after working as an actor and singer in New York City.
“After starving for a time, I decided that maybe I better go back to school, so I went to seminary. I had tried to go to seminary before that, but I was too young — I couldn’t be ordained. You had to be at least 2, and I was 20 when I first applied.”
He and his husband, Anthony, who have a 23-year-old daughter, retired to Bethany Beach four years ago, after leaving his last parish in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Hesse, whose family used to vacation in Ocean City, Md., when he was a kid, conducted “Sunday supply work” in Maryland and Delaware in retirement.
“I filled in when people are on vacation, ill or on sabbatical,” he said, noting he filled in at eight different area parishes, including Bethany Beach Christian Church.
“One Sunday, a year or so ago, they asked if I would fill in, because their minister was not able to be here that week. I filled in and really liked it very much. The people were very, very kind, very open,” he said.
“So, when I heard they were looking for a minister” to fill in, “I said, ‘Would you consider me?’ which was interesting, because I’m not a member of the Disciples of Christ Church — I’m an Episcopal minister. I’ve been ordained for 35 years in the Episcopal Church. They had to think outside the box for a bit and see if that would be a good fit for them.”
Then, when he heard there was an opening at Bethany Beach Christian Church, though he’d only filled in once, he decided to apply for the position.
“That impressed them enough and me enough,” he said of his prior visit there, “that when they were looking for somebody, it seemed like a good, possible fit,” he said. “I’m really a newbie. It’s a nice place, they’re very laidback, extremely open to people of all walks of life.
“They’re an open congregation, where they’re welcoming to people from different sexual orientations; generally-speaking, support same-sex marriage... People here feel that everyone is welcome, no matter who they are.”
His new gig at the church will have him preaching at the 9:30 a.m. Sunday services, giving communion, holding office hours during the week, visiting the sick, helping with the dying and being engaged in committee work.
“I’m new, so I have to learn all they are doing. It’s a pretty active parish for a small group of people.”
The welcoming nature of the parishioners is what drew Hesse to the church, and a quality he believes can use to grow the congregation.
“Any type of background you have, you’re welcome to come here. It’s hard to find a church that is open and affirming to everyone. They live what they believe.”
He also called attention to their casual dress code, which he said he believes is another reason to attend the church.
“They’re very casual, how they come to church. If you want to come in a T-shirt and shorts? That’s fine. If you want to come in your bathing suit, within reason, that’s OK, too. If you want to be dressed up a little more, that’s fine.
“Ministers in the past have worn a collar or dressed down in a Hawaiian shirt, which a lot of people in the congregation like, because it makes them feel good, because they’re dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, too.
“I can remember, as a kid, we always had a fight growing up, ‘Do I have to get dressed up for church?’ When I was a teenager, the minister I had said, ‘No, you don’t.’ It was a major coup for all the kids in the youth group. He said, ‘God doesn’t care what you wear, just that you want to be here.’ So, we built a big youth group — about 80 people in that small town — because we were that cool youth group where you didn’t have to get dressed up to go to church.”
He also has a few other ideas on how to grow the congregation, including adding some shows or starting a choir, and having a ‘bring-someone-Sunday” where parishioners are encouraged to invite non-members.
“Invite someone you know who wasn’t going to church,” he said. “It’s very hard to walk in a church cold and say, ‘I want to be here and become a member,’ but if someone invites you, there’s a better chance of being connected.”
Along with his pastoral duties, Hesse serves on the board of the Bethany Area Reparatory Theatre, is the treasurer and second-vice-president for Delaware’s Sons of the American Revolution and also volunteers at CAMP Rehoboth.
“That keeps me pretty busy,” he said with a laugh.
As a self-proclaimed people-person, Hesse said it was his love of working with people that helped draw him to serving God.
“I love to work with people. I like to preach; I try to offer things that could be helpful to them during the week. I try to ask the difficult questions that I want to know, and then I try to answer them in my sermons.
“I can remember one of my former colleagues saying, ‘The major job of the minister is to love the people.’ That’s one of the reasons I really felt drawn here, because I felt people were open to being loved.
“If you’re open to that, it also means you’re going to be very loving to other people. It’s nice to be a part of a congregation where that’s a focus. ‘How can we help other people? How can we be open to other people? How can we invite other people in? How can we make them feel at home?’”
His relationship with God is of the utmost importance, he said, and is one that he hopes to help grow in others.
“We had a question-and-answer period after I preached, and people got to ask me really personal and professional questions about how I felt about this or that. One man asked me to describe my personal relationship with Christ…
“I’m very interested in my work and in my preaching about what brings us closer to God, because I believe with God all things are possible. So, what I like about my job is I get to test that. Is it true all things are possible? Well, if it’s true, therefore anything you say can be done.
“Well, you don’t know that. But if you’re open to the possibilities that come along with it, you’re open to the wonderful gifts that God has in store for all of us.”
Hesse said that, without knowing it, his road led him to Bethany Beach Christian Church, and for that he is grateful.
“There were so many connections that all added up to this. If you had asked me a year ago where I would be, I would never have said I’d be here. It was never a possibility. But here I am.”
Bethany Beach Christian Church is located at 7 N. Pennsylvania Avenue in Bethany Beach. For more information about the church, call (302) 539-4118, visit bethanybeachchristianchurch.org or attend a 9:30 a.m. Sunday service.