PORTLAND — Wearing a rainbow stole over his dark minister’s robes, the Rev. Charles Grindle, 57, the newest member of the ministry team at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, welcomed parishioners on a frigid January night for his weekly Eventide service.
The service began in a typical fashion, with music, albeit a rather free-form version of “We Shall Overcome.” What any newcomer would find surprising was the person behind the polished 7-foot Baldwin piano was Grindle.
Throughout the service, Grindle moved seamlessly between the lectern and the piano – wheeled up front specially for his service, so he could weave music with his message of love and acceptance for all.
Grindle’s first love was music and theater. He grew up in Ellsworth before moving to Portland to study music at the University of Southern Maine. He joined South Portland’s Lyric Music Theater, working behind the scenes in “the pit” as music director, and performing onstage in favorite roles like Toddy in the musical “Victor/Victoria.”
He also found a home at First Parish, both as a parishioner and as director of music from 1983 to 1990 and again from 1999 to 2006.
In between his two stints as music director, he moved to San Diego to pursue a master’s degree in music theater at U.S. International University.
“I showed up for my audition in sequins and red cowboy boots,” Grindle recalled. “But they accepted me anyway.”
In 2006, he moved away again for more training. But this time, it was to become ordained as a minister in a two-year seminary program at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York City.
He returned to First Parish last year in his new capacity as minister of music, joining the Rev. Kitsy Winthrop and the Rev. Dr. Will Saunders on the ministerial support team led by the parish minister, the Rev. Dr. Tim Jensen.
He still directs the choir, but now has additional duties including leading his Wednesday Eventide service and preaching on Sundays every seven weeks.
Grindle said his experience in theater transfers easily to his new role.
“When you’re on stage, you try and touch the audience’s souls with other people’s words,” he said. “As a minister, you can do it with your own words. It’s like divine theater.”
The congregation has rallied around its supporting ministers. They have been relied upon heavily the past year while Jensen has battled cancer.
One parishioner, 73-year-old Sylvia Skillin of Falmouth, has known Grindle since 1991 and said she is “thrilled” about his role at the church. She is a fan of Grindle’s non-traditional approach, especially when it comes to music.
“I’ve heard many people talk about how they love our music here,” Skillin said. “We get a lot of people here from all walks, you know? From Broadway songs to classical music, he reaches everybody. We just love him.”
Unitarian Universalists are no strangers to the non-traditional. First Parish, along with many other UU congregations throughout the country, has completed an intensive educational program to become recognized as a “welcoming congregation,” inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
This welcoming, inclusive approach sits well with Grindle, who is openly gay. And now, he is able to synthesize his passion for theater and ministry in a supportive congregation.
“For me,” he said. “I have felt that theater and church has been the safest place for a person to be a person.”
Rich Obrey photo
The Rev. Charles Grindle at the piano at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church on Congress Street. As the congregation’s minister of music, he combines reflective piano pieces with readings and prayer.
Courtesy Charles Grindle
Before he became a minister, Charles Grindle, left, performed in musical theater. Here he plays Toddy in “Victor/Victoria.”