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November 08. 2012 1:56AM

Interim minister at Nashua church took unorthodox path


Olivia Holmes, interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, lights a candle from the chalice. (SIMN ROS/Union Leader Correspondent)
NASHUA - When Olivia Holmes left her market research company to work in international development, she had no idea the next step in her life would be into the pulpit.

"As with so many children, I walked away from church as soon as my parents would let me, and it took a half a lifetime to come back," said Holmes, sitting in her office on a cold fall afternoon.

Holmes is the interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, whose minister of 23 years retired over the summer. In the pulpit she is a commanding presence - her words slow and deliberate, relating a lifetime of learning zeroed in on the sermon written earlier in the week.

During the height of election season, last Sunday she gave a dialogue sermon, shared with someone as committed to his political party as she is to hers. (Five candidates for state office attend the UU Church here.)

"We all have to learn how to listen to another point of view," she concluded.

Holmes began her career in market research, forming a company that would employ 50 people at its height. But in 1981, when the U.S. Agency for International Development offered her a contract to assess a $20 million bilateral government program in Bangladesh, it was the start of a career in development work that would bring her around the world more times than she can remember.

"Without ever having done anything like this I said 'of course I'll go and be your head of team (in Bangladesh),'" she said with a laugh. "And that really moved me into the international arena of social programs."

In 1984 she attended a U.U. church service that would prove fateful to Holmes. Unlike the Unitarian church she was brought up in - before Unitarians and Universalists formed the Unitarian Universalist Church - the church was no longer exclusively Christian. She prayed with Christians, Humanists, Buddhists, Jews, even Atheists.

"I discovered that a place existed where people from all different faiths could find respect and could be heard," she said. A place that "doesn't tell us what to think, but gives us tools to help us decide how to think.'

While meditating some time later, Holmes said she was tapped on the shoulder by God. She thought it was a mistake - God must've been looking for the lady down the street - but when it happened a second time she knew it was aimed at her. It was time to heed the call.

Without having gone to college she was accepted into Harvard Divinity School, and five years later she was at the helm of her first congregation, in Westport, Conn. But because of her experience in international development, she was soon tapped by the Unitarian Universalist Association (the association of U.U. congregations), to be its director of International and Interfaith Relations.

Among other countries, that brought Holmes to India. She worked with "untouchables" who were only allowed to work cleaning latrines with their bare hands; with lepers who were forced to live in a colony with no medical assistance; with prostitutes who were trying to form a union so they could insist on safe sex practices.

In 2006 she retired from the UUA and asked herself where she wanted to live. Temple, N.H. was home to a house that she would fall in love with, and it's the house she bought and lives in today.

As a newcomer to the state, and wanting to acquaint herself with the Unitarian Universalists of northern New England, she thought being an interim minister would be the perfect path. Her first ministry was in Keene, then Concord, then Burlington, Vt., and now she's in Nashua.

Holmes isn't afraid to give unorthodox answers - perhaps befitting a U.U. minister. Asked why the religion isn't proselytizing one, she said: "We're not, but we should be."

"If you believe that your religion can make a positive difference in people's lives and in the way we treat one another in the world - why wouldn't you want to share it?"

But that's not how it is. Holmes said this is because Unitarians are too respectful of the beliefs of others to try and convince them otherwise - something that fortifies the church's moral authority as much as it restrains its growth.

Asked if she's an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist, she pitched to the side with a smile: "I'm a U.U."

"It's been said of us that we shouldn't be judged by our theology because it's such a small piece of who we really are," she said. "Unitarian Universalism tries to give us tools to constantly question what we understand to be of ultimate value - whether we call that "God," or "spirit of life," or "ground of being," - what does it mean to be human in relationship with life?"

"We're born and we die - we can't change that. The only thing we can change is how we live between those two points. Unitarian Universalism tries to help us do that well."

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Simon Rios may be reached at srios@newstote.com.

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