Let’s face it. It isn’t always easy for people to find their footing as newcomers to Sag Harbor. With an ever changing set of faces on Main Street — especially in the summer — making meaningful connections can take a good deal of time and effort.
But for the Reverend Christine Gimbol, or “Pastor Chris” as she was known to her parishioners at the First Presbyterian (Old Whalers’) Church in Sag Harbor, being a newcomer was never an issue — and making those connections never a chore. That’s because from the moment she arrived here from Wisconsin to become the pastor at the church in 1985, she knew she had come home.
“Every morning of our married life in Sag Harbor, when Chris would get up, we’d have coffee and she would say, ‘This is my first real home and this is my first hometown,’” recalls her husband, Reverend William Grimbol. “She had had issues with her family and background issues, but this was home. I think she considered all of Sag Harbor her home. And without claiming it or naming it, she felt as if part of her job was to be the chaplain of Sag Harbor.”
“What I find ironic is I’m the Midwesterner,” says Grimbol. “But it was Chris who brought the Midwest to Sag Harbor. Her warm friendly manner got its guard down.”
In addition to the tough talking fishermen she met for coffee early each morning at the Harbor Deli and the locals she introduced herself to while writing sermons at the Paradise Diner, Pastor Chris also made it her mission to get to know the youth here. And it was through the youth — and not just those who would typically be found at Sunday School — that she found her true calling in Sag Harbor.
Grimbol, pastor of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, recalls just how his wife managed to reach out to some of the most incorrigible young candidates in the village and get them to come to the church.
“In building the youth group, there are some stories that sound like mythology,” says Grimbol. “But it’s the truth.”
“We took a walk after lunch one day at Paradise. It was after school and one of the first weeks we were here,” he recalls. “She walked up to a group and said to the kids, ‘The youth group meets on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Where do you live? I’ll pick you up.’”
“It was like the Charles Manson boys chorus,” grins Grimbol. “She just went and got everybody.”
But in April of 2000, Pastor Chris died of complications as the result of surgery. She was 54 years old. Now, eight years after her death, her husband is once again “coming to get the youth” of Sag Harbor. This time, in the form of The Christine Beth Rannie Grimbol Center for East End Adolescents, which will operate from the Old Whalers’ Church where his wife was pastor for the last 15 years of her life.
Pastor Chris knew what it was like to have a tough childhood. Early life for her was a series of hardships. Her mother died within hours of her birth — her father and three year old brother drowned when she was just 10 months old. She was sent to live with a relative in a home where she suffered years of abuse. Eventually she found comfort and salvation in the church and in singing. After earning a degree in music from Westminster Choir College, she went on to earn her divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary.
“I think the most incredible thing when I look at Chris’s life is the fact that she came out of a very ungracious background which repeatedly blared a message of lack of worth,” says Grimbol. “Yet somehow she managed to dig down inside herself to give back to people the opposite. It was an absolute sense of unconditional love. Her message was her person.”
And that message extended to the youth she embraced in Sag Harbor.
“She never noticed the things about them that others didn’t like,” he says. “Telling her story was how she got the values in there. She was unafraid to take them on that journey. She’d say this is what I’ve experienced. I’ve come out whole and holy. She recognized the fact that we live in a culture that endlessly tells you you’re not enough. It’s as if our whole economic culture is based on that. But Chris’s message was your enough. You’re more than enough already.”
And that’s exactly the sort of advice Grimbol and others involved in the effort will be offering young people when The Christine Beth Rannie Grimbol Center for East End Adolescents open next Monday, September 22.
For the past year, Grimbol has been meeting with staff and prospective board members to define the primary mission of the center, which is to offer a place that’s available and accessible for kids to come and feel good about who they are. In addition to therapists who will be available to meet one-on-one with kids, Grimbol explains that the center, which will be open each Monday from 4 to 9 p.m. will also offer parenting programs, dinner dialogues for teens and other forums that stress diversity, respect for selves and others and address issues of racial bias and sexual orientation issues.
“It’s not a youth center,” notes Grimbol. “We’re really here to talk about serious subjects. Being serious is not depressing.”
This Saturday, September 20 at 8 p.m., singer Jody Carlson will perform in concert at the Old Whalers’ Church for the benefit of The Christine Beth Rannie Grimbol Center for East End Adolescents.
“I sing standards from the American songbook with a jazz twist,” says Carlson, who has a home in Bridgehampton. “I enjoy singing songs people love to hear and songs where the lyrics speak to me — composers like Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart and Duke Ellington.”
Music played a huge role in Pastor Chris’ life — so it is fitting that it would be through music that the center would find support. Jody Carlson is not only a singer, but she was also an Old Whalers’ Church parishioner and close friend to Pastor Chris.
Carlson, who has performed at cabaret clubs throughout New York City, now sings every Tuesday evening at Pierre’s in Bridgehampton. She first came to the Old Whalers’ Church when she and her husband were weekenders looking for a church where their young children could attend Sunday school. They stopped looking when they found Pastor Chris.
“In her sermons Chris would always revealed so much and invited so much thought,” notes Carlson. “Her honesty was absolutely dazzling to hear — her courage to reveal so much in her sermons.”
“I think that kind of honesty gives people permission and courage themselves to reveal their lives and their conversations with loved ones,” she continues. “I got so much out of what she gave to us. She set the stage for lots of love. She gave so much and hopefully received so much. Not only in the church but in the ecumenical youth group. She touched the kids and gave them someone to talk to.”
Though it’s based in Sag Harbor, Grimbol envisions the new center as being one that will serve youth from all over the East End. He plans to bring young people over with him from Shelter Island for the Monday evening sessions and has a donated 15 seat van that he has nicknamed the “Chris Craft” which will make the trip.
Â “I’m trying to convince the kids we’re not just offering therapy, we’re trying to offer inspiration, motivation, awareness and understanding,” says Grimbol. “It’s realizing that there is a choice of perspective and attitude. It’s not so much focused on kids problems, but giving them the tools for whatever life gives them to handle.”
“I’m genuinely excited and grateful to the Old Whalers’ church. They’ve made our job easy,” adds Grimbol. “It’s always a difficult issue for a church to say how do we celebrate our past without preventing our future. In doing this that I think we’ve said, ‘Chris is gone, but the spirit lives on.’”
“She more than anyone would want all kinds of people to come to that church to meet their needs.”
Tickets to Jody Carlson’s concert on Saturday, September 20 at 8 p.m. are $50 and available in Sag Harbor at Sag Harbor Liquors, Spinnakers and Sparkling Pools and Harbor Hot Tubs. Tickets will also be sold at the door. The Old Whalers’ Church is located at 44 Union Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call 749-0805.
Above: The Rev. William Grimbol in front of the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor where his wife, Rev. Christine Grimbol, was pastor for the last 15 years of her life.