BEVERLY — The city's oldest church has hired the second-youngest minister in its 31/2-century history.
The Rev. Kelly Asprooth-Jackson, 28, started last month as the minister of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church. The church began in 1667, the year before Beverly became a town.
Remarkably, Asprooth-Jackson is only the 26th minister in the parish's 343-year history. He takes over at a key moment, with the church having recently completed a $600,000 renovation of the building's exterior and in the midst of raising $2 million for work on the interior.
Earlier this year, members made the difficult decision to sell some of the church's historic silver to help pay for the work.
First Parish historian Charles Wainwright said the renovations and the appointment of Asprooth-Jackson "gives us a different direction."
"We've sort of been in the background in the city," Wainwright said. "We'd like to get ourselves out more, and Kelly is in a good position to do that."
A search committee spent two years looking for a new minister after the Rev. Sylvia Howe retired. The committee interviewed five candidates and recommended Asprooth-Jackson to the congregation, which, in the Unitarian-Universalist tradition, gets to vote on a new minister.
"It was a unanimous vote to call him, which is incredible," said Arthur Thompson, the search committee vice chairman. "The UUA says anything around 95 percent is good. He has a wonderful intellect, he's a very warm person and a great preacher. The top thing everyone was looking for was somebody who could deliver in the pulpit."
Thompson said First Parish has had one minister who was younger than Asprooth-Jackson, but that was years ago.
Wearing a black suit and black Converse high-top sneakers, Asprooth-Jackson said in an interview this week that he wanted to be a minister since he was a 13-year-old boy growing up in Rochester, N.Y. He was raised as a Unitarian-Universalist, an anomaly in a religion that tends to have more joiners than people who were born to the faith, he said.
After graduating from Bard College in New York, he attended Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., one of only two Unitarian-Universalist seminaries in the world.
Asprooth-Jackson was active in social issues throughout college and the seminary. He met his wife, Sara, at an anti-racism group at Bard. At Starr King, he joined Seminarians for Worker Justice and helped hotel workers in Oakland organize a union.
After graduating from the seminary, he worked as a chaplain in the heart transplant ward and neonatal unit at a hospital in Rochester.
"It was a very important time in the development of my ministry," he said. "You see death every day in the hospital. It was a gift to be able to serve there."
Asprooth-Jackson said he is impressed with the commitment the First Parish congregation has shown to the ongoing renovation project and such community service work as free Tuesday night suppers, its support of Beverly Bootstraps, and service trips to rural El Salvador.
Membership was "on the upswing" during the two-year tenure of interim minister Lyn Plumb and now totals 155, he said. He said his job is not to necessarily grow membership but to "serve the spiritual needs of this community and the wider community."
First Parish formally became a "welcoming congregation" for gay people in 2002 and hosted a same-sex wedding a month after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2004.
"We have several members who are 'out,' and we're ready to recognize more," Asprooth-Jackson said. "In Beverly, there are not a lot of other options, unfortunately."
That message of tolerance in some ways runs counter to the beginnings of First Parish. The church's first minister, John Hale, supported the prosecution of the accused during the Salem Witch Trials before later experiencing a change of heart.
More than three centuries later, Asprooth-Jackson said the need for tolerance is more acute than ever.
"Sadly, there are not enough religious voices and religious communities that fill that role," he said. "That's why I'm doing this work, in hopes that we can be the faith that this age needs us to be."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at pleighton@salem news.com.