As he walks through Old Steeple Community Church, the Rev. Dr. Anton DeWet touches the walls of the weathered building and observes its aging beauty.
Even creaky floorboards in the Aquebogue house of worship, where the reverend was installed as pastor this past Sunday, have meaning for the African native.
“They don’t make them like this anymore,” he said. “They want to fix [the creaky floor.] I told them not to; I like it.”
The Rev. DeWet, who moved to the North Fork in January, said he already feels at home in the church and surrounding community. The close-knit, farm-based community reminds him a lot of his upbringing in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe.
He recalled working on a farm, similar to the ones around him now, as a teenager. But there’s one key difference between life here and there, where he grew up during the Rhodesian civil war.
He recalled having to carry a gun with him as he worked in the fields for fear he would be ambushed. Even into his adulthood, living in South Africa, he was exposed to constant violence.
As a kid, the Rev. DeWet found happiness at his local church, stating that the reverend there served as his mentor. His involvement with the church began in 10th grade and after high school, he joined the seminary. However, after finishing his training there and earning a doctorate in ministry, he decided to separate from the church.
“I couldn’t continue in the rigidity and the conservatism of the South African Reform Church,” he said. “The one thing that I just couldn’t tolerate is the fact that the church that I was a part of and which I loved as a child, that they seemed to be more obsessed with moral issues.”
The Rev. DeWet said he wanted to be a part of a more progressive church, one that supports the rights of the LGBTQ community, and felt that he did not connect with the South African Reform Church.
“To me, it’s way more important how we treat each other than how we believe,” he said.
After removing himself from the church in South Africa, the Rev. DeWet and his wife, Henza, began a business there building homes for people.
They left South Africa in 1993 when a friend who lived in the United States told him about the United Church of Christ, a Christian denomination that the Rev. DeWet felt he connected with. The couple moved to Florida when their two sons were young because they believed it was a safer place to raise a family.
The Rev. DeWet said he was lucky to enter the U.S. and was able to do so only because he was a minister. Although he said it was hard to leave his relatives behind, he needed to raise his family in an environment where they did not live in constant fear. He loved the culture around him in South Africa, but the downside of that culture included constant robberies, home invasions and bombs exploding. It simply become too much.
In the U.S., the Rev. DeWet joined the United Church of Christ and served as a minister in Oregon and California before moving to the North Fork.
He said he could not help but fall in love with his new community, which he’s spent the past six months getting to know.
Old Steeple Community Church member Carol Lee said both the pastor and his wife are easy to talk to and enthusiastic about being here.
“I feel certain they will help the congregation grow in numbers as well as every other way in which a church should grow,” she said. Ms. Lee added that the Rev. DeWet has a way of making children feel special during services.
“It is wonderful so see [the kids] relaxed and enjoying their experience,” she said.
Fellow church member Robert Hanulec agrees that his connection to the younger generation is refreshing, calling his ability to speak to children “heaven-sent.” He said the new pastor belongs here.
“He is a farmer at heart,” Mr. Hanulec said. “[He] fits well into our community.”
The Rev. DeWet said he wants the community to know that the church doors are always open to them.
“We have a saying in the United Church of Christ: No matter who you are and no matter where you’ve been on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” he said. “We don’t have to believe the same things, but this is a safe place.”
While he feels close to home in this new community, the reverend still finds ways to connect with his native culture. His office at the church is decorated with colorful maps, wildlife statues and different paintings that remind him of home — merging his old life with the new.
“I long so much for that sense of home that it’s wonderful to see these people and they are home,” he said.