An interview with The Rev. Robert White, interfaith chaplain of Bethesda House in Schenectady since 2006 when he retired as senior minister at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady.
What are some tenets of the Reformed Church movement?
It’s the religion of the original Dutch settlers, identical in theology and worship to the Presbyterian Church. The Reformed Church is the oldest denomination in the United States with a continuous history whose theology is rooted in Calvanism.
Was your upbringing religious?
My parents were nominally religious but my birth and the reality of having a child caused them to return to Bethany Reformed Church of Roseland on the South Side of Chicago. It seemed like they had a second conversion and faith quickly became central to their lives. I felt they were rapt with attention when Harry J. Hager was preaching and they would talk about it afterward to me.
It seems like he had a profound impact on you and set you on a path to becoming a minister.
He did. He was intelligent and had a thoughtful presentation, not just a lot of screaming and yelling, but a real explanation of the Word that touched hearts. From the time I was 5, I knew I wanted to be a minister and had positive pastoral role models. They were very faithful, related well to me, and my parents respected them.
How did you know at such a tender age that you wanted to go into ministry?
It was the people and how they felt I had a depth of faith, interest, commitment, that I could articulate fairly well. The church was our life and it was mostly lay people who thought of my potential as a minister and I began to feel that call.
Did you ever deviate from that path and what about those college days when it’s sometimes a struggle to do the right thing?
I was a normal kid, but church was important in my life and I was focused. I considered becoming a professor and teaching in a seminary. I even enrolled in Columbia University, but after a year I decided the academic track was not fulfilling my needs.
You visited the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s during the Cold War. What was the highlight of that trip?
It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I was part of an ecumenical group of over 130 people invited by Russian Orthodox and Baptist Church. We spent Easter 1984 in a packed Russian Orthodox church. The human reality of fellowshipping with Russians just changed my life and convinced me more that the course of action of both of our countries and the demonizing of each other was all wrong.
How would you describe your preaching style?
Preaching should be raising the dead not putting people to sleep. Good preaching is hard work and requires studying. Prayer is central to reformed worship so I spent a lot of time on prayer as well as worship. And I kept trying to increase creative ways for people in the church to serve the community.
Tell us about Bethesda House?
We define ourselves as an interfaith agency that tries to bring together different religions in service to the poor. We believe in working together to realize the mandate that different philosophies place on serving the poor. Interfaith advocacy is an important part of what we do as when we petition government agencies like HUD to be responsive to the needy.
What was it like moving from your church to Bethesda House?
I had a lot to learn about poverty. It’s a complex and cultural phenomenon. I went in a few months from working with some of the most privileged people in Schenectady from places like General Electric and Union College to some of the most disadvantaged citizens. I found as much faith at First Reformed Church as I did at Bethesda House, maybe even more. For some people at Bethesda who are on the edge everyday, God is all they have, so they are more willing to talk about their faith. Those of us who are more comfortable have the allusion of self-sufficiency.
Background: the 65-year-old Chicago native graduated from Hope College in Michigan and was pastor at churches in New Jersey and Syracuse before coming to lead the Schenectady congregation in 1992, the same year he joined the Bethesda House board. He and his college sweetheart, JoAnne White, have been married for 43 years and have one son, Erik.