By Doug Muder
Natural beauty, winding roads, welcoming neighbors, and a “next level” of citizen engagement – those are Bedford’s first impressions on First Parish’s new senior minister, Jamie Hinson-Rieger, who arrived in August from his previous church in Indianapolis.
Since moving into First Parish’s parsonage on Ledgewood Drive (where he lives with his wife Susanne, their daughter Jordan, and two dogs), Rev. Hinson-Rieger has seen deer, coyotes, and the neighborhood’s resident flock of wild turkeys.
“We didn’t have wild turkeys in Indianapolis,” he explained in an interview with The Citizen the day before Thanksgiving.
The Bedford roads, which defeat any hope of going around the block, took some getting used to after living on a Midwestern grid system.
“I drove home a different way every time those first weeks.” But he enjoys knowing that “everything is seven minutes away. You drive half an hour here and you’re in a different state. You drive half an hour in Indianapolis and you haven’t even left Indianapolis.”
His friendly neighbors didn’t just introduce themselves, they provided “all sorts of information I needed to know about getting connected to the town: This is what you should know about how you can vote, and this is when the town meetings are, and make sure you subscribe to The Citizen, and this is when the block party is.”
But perhaps the most striking thing about Bedford is “how much people here really care about the community and are very thoughtfully engaged in the life of the community.”
As minister of a church that encouraged social action, he, of course, knew people involved in the political and cultural life of Indianapolis.
“But it’s kind of next-level here in Bedford. I was at a dinner party and everyone at the party had strong and well-informed opinions about tree planting in the town and zoning laws and fishing regulations.”
His early experiences have created the not-quite-accurate impression that “Everyone here is on some sort of council or committee or board.”
He attributes that leveling-up of engagement both to our town-meeting style of governance and to a “Bedford-centric patriotism that doesn’t quite happen in the Midwest in the same way.”
He observed that local patriotism in Bedfordites’ eagerness to educate him on the town traditions – even ones that haven’t come around yet, such as the pole capping.
What he calls “the town-centric-ness of things” in New England is both a joy and a challenge.
“That sense of strong connection to place is really terrific. But as someone who’s newly arrived in a role as minister, I’m thinking, how am I going to build relationships and connections across town lines? Not just thinking in terms of Bedford, but how are we serving the larger community as well?”
While suburban Bedford has different problems than a city such as Indianapolis, he noted, “you’re dealing with issues that all communities are dealing with” such as food or housing insecurity.
“One of the first things I did when I got here was get a tour of the food pantry and see all the people helping there, which again is really terrific. It’s an example of that same kind of engaged citizenry.”
He has also been impressed by the community’s response to the unexpected arrival of migrants, who the state is housing in the Bedford Plaza Hotel.
“The outpouring of support has really been terrific. The interfaith community really jumped in. But it was impressive how quickly the town itself got engaged and put a structure together, and how strongly the people of Bedford have responded in a welcoming and practically useful way.”
Hinson-Rieger took an unusual path to the ministry. His undergraduate degree was in history and economics, and he worked for 18 years at the Federal Home Loan Bank in Indianapolis, which he now describes as a good job, but not a passion. A lapsed Catholic, he hadn’t even heard of the religion he currently preaches, Unitarian Universalism, until he was 30.
“So, I was unchurched in my 20s, and thinking of ministry as a career wasn’t on the radar.”
After joining a Unitarian Universalist church in Indianapolis, he began assisting the minister on Sunday mornings, partly to overcome a fear of public speaking. But when that minister had to leave the congregation unexpectedly, Hinson-Rieger found himself filling the void and leading services on his own. He discovered that he both enjoyed his new role and had an aptitude for it, so eventually he enrolled in seminary to become a minister.
Hinson-Rieger’s arrival has been part of a major transition at First Parish, whose previous senior minister, John Gibbons, retired in 2021 after serving 31 years. Rev. Jamie, as he likes to be known, brings his own unique skill-set to the job. In addition to preaching sermons from the pulpit, he is also a skilled storyteller. Twenty-six of the children’s stories he told in Indianapolis have been collected into a book, The Ant Farmers.
His stories often start out sounding like traditional fables or fairy tales, but then take a twist: In Hinson-Rieger’s version of the classic five-wise-men-describing-an-elephant tale, the king is in the middle of drawing the standard moral (that all five of his counselors’ observations are needed to understand the elephant) when the elephant interrupts, complaining that no one seems to care about his point of view: He hasn’t enjoyed being poked and prodded, and wants to go home. In response, the king has to revise his lesson: “The most important perspective is the one you didn’t think to ask for and didn’t know you were missing.” In the end, it is the elephant who lives happily ever after.
Can we eventually expect to see a new collection of stories written for First Parish? “I hope so,” he said. “That is one of my goals, to keep writing and to be able to bring some new things to this congregation. Hopefully, someday there will be a volume two.”