Sept. 24, 2001 – For the first time in its 14-year history, St. John's Unitarian Universalist Church has a permanent minister. The Rev. Phillip Schulman arrived Aug. 16 to lead the flock of 22 Unitarians and about 30 non-members who regularly attend services.
"We've been working for this for years," member Ken Damon said.
Schulman, 41, comes to St. John after a career in community-based ministries, where he worked with homeless people and others needing social services.
"I tried to bring spirituality as a holistic part of mental health," he said.
With a bachelor's degree in English and social science from Rutgers University under his belt, he started his working life teaching at Passaic County Vocational School in his hometown of Wayne, N.J.
He was studying for his master's degree in counseling when his life led him to the Unitarians. He had attended anti-antiapartheid and nuclear freeze campaigns that met at the local church when he realized the Unitarian ministry appealed to him. He decided to change directions.
"I fit right in," he said.
The son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Schulman was raised in the Jewish faith, but saw that the Unitarians allowed him to draw from both religions as well as other spiritual ideas.
After dropping out of the master's program at William Paterson University, he went off to the Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry, associated with the University of California at Berkley. He graduated in 1989. This is his first permanent job heading up a congregation.
While still getting the lay of the land, he faces his first major task — helping the Unitarians deal with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He said that with a congregation that leans toward pacifism, it's been hard for the members to deal with a government plan that involves violence as the solution.
"It's not black and white. How do we respond to this? We will shape the answer together," Schulman said.
He has other tasks in front of him. He said the Unitarians want to expand the size of their congregation and to become more of a presence in the community.
"They want to be a force for tolerance and religious pluralism," he said.
Schulman has no plans to change the members' extensive involvement in church activities. Except for a few brief stints by visiting ministers, the local Unitarians have always had members of the congregation lead services.
He has nothing but praise for the members, a group he said thrives on discussion as well as song.
Since his arrival, Schulman has been trying to get settled. He has temporary housing until Dec. 1 but, like all newcomers to St. John, faces the daunting task of finding a place to live at a price he can afford.
"I'm on a tight budget," he acknowledged, noting that he needs to factor office space into the financial equation.
He's spent time meeting his fellow clergy in both St. Thomas and St. John and has put in a few hours exploring the islands' undersea life through a snorkel mask.
"I swam with the turtles at Lameshur," he said, as enthusiastic about this side of St. John life as he is about ministering to his congregation.
Unitarian services are held at the Pine Peace School Community Room at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. Members will pick up anyone coming from St. Thomas at the Cruz Bay ferry dock. Call 693-7572 in advance to arrange for a ride.


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