By Barry Dalton
Standing behind the lectern, Rev. Rick Watson glides his fingers over a braille keyboard like a virtuoso pianist playing an uplifting hymn. As he delivers his sermon, his comforting baritone speaking voice sounds like someone you might hear on Sunday radio.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Watson has only been in town since late November, but he’s already been embraced by his new church family at the First Presbyterian Church of Vandalia.
“The first Sunday he preached,” says long-time church volunteer Ann Carter, “I was sitting off to the side where I could see. So I could see his hands moving, and I was fascinated.”
A former IT guy, the reverend has been working with Dalton Buie, a member of the church, to continue to integrate technology into the ministry. The church just held its first ever Facebook Live service on Dec. 20, thanks to technical support from Buie. But if social media is not your thing, you can still listen to church services live on FM 89.1 (within three blocks of the church).
“I like to combine technology and ministry,” Watson said. “Because I think technology is simply a tool for us to reach out to folks.”
Although there may still be some technical kinks to work out with the Facebook stream, the church’s first attempt was well received by members Doris Lierheimer, Rebecca Smalley, Delores Deppe and Joyce Morrow.
“Wonderful,” commented Deppe. “So good to see the inside of the church.” “I heard you!” added Smalley. “You are so gifted, Rick. Your message was truly a blessing!” “Was very glad to be able, via the internet, to be a part of this service,” said Morrow. “Great service!” raved Lierheimer.
Watson, who was born and raised a Presbyterian in Connellsville, Pa., taught Sunday school and was a church elder before finding his true calling as a minister. He began as a commissioned pastor in the Presbyterian Church, serving a small congregation in Leisenring, Pa., before finally attending the Dubuque Seminary in Iowa and becoming ordained. He was ordained at the Third Presbyterian Church of Uniontown, Pa., on Nov. 8, 2020, before moving to Vandalia with his mother on Nov. 19. His first service as an ordained minister was Nov. 22 in Vandalia.
“We love the community,” Watson said. “It’s really friendly. It feels like we’ve been here for months. It just feels like home.”
Watson added that he’s really impressed with how much activity there is in town, including the food banks. He applauds the efforts that the citizens of the area, including his congregation, make to improve the community. Even the small things, like the food drop box in front of the church on North Jefferson Street, can make a big difference in people’s lives, he says.
“The church I came from, we were one of the longest running food banks in the county,” Watson said. “It’s a huge need with the cost of everything. There are people out there who literally need stuff we don’t even think about on a daily basis.”
He says that the need has increased with the pandemic but has always been there. He sees the church playing a critical role during these trying times.
“With the COVID issues and all of the changes this year, I think the church has an opportunity to be a beacon of hope,” said Watson. “We have the opportunity to say that God is bigger than all of this.”
The reverend supports wearing masks and social distancing. In fact, the pews of the church are arranged so that anyone who chooses to come inside the sanctuary can social distance.
“We’re not stuck in this never-ending thing that’s never going to get better,” Watson added. “The colors of advent–the purple and the pink–symbolize peace, hope, joy and all that we love. That’s a message that needs to be heard this time of year.”
Watson says that he was born without sight, though he does have light perception.
“I can see lights and shadows, and that’s about it,” he explained. “I can’t tell what the shadows are but if I walk past something I can see there’s a shadow of a door or whatever. I can’t tell you if it’s green or anything else about it. I can tell the difference between light and dark during the day and night.”
Watson prefers to be called Rick, or Pastor Rick if you must. He’s an avid reader and enjoys watching old TV like the Andy Griffith Show. A graduate of public school, he played the tuba in the marching and concert bands. He’s also a licensed HAM operator who helped out with emergency communications during Hurricane Hugo. His favorite song is “Here I am, Lord,” which was played at his ordination.
“That song is almost a conversation between God and someone called to serve,” he said. “It just really connected with me. It’s always been a journey that I believe God has directed. I think sometimes I’ve been a little slow to respond. It took me six years from when I found the seminary to actually start the seminary, because I always thought, ‘Who me?’ But there’s always been such a sense of peace about this call, since I first started conversations with the church in Pennsylvania.”
The journey is far from over as he begins his new life in Vandalia, he says, and he’s still working on learning to navigate the large church with its many rooms and halls. Watson recalls another song, called Beautiful Messes, which talks about the fact that none of us are perfect. Watson says that God still uses us even with–and maybe because of–our imperfections to do His work in the world.
“I think God gives us our imperfections to do things that we’ve never imagined.”