Member Stories: Perry and Susie

Anyone attending First Church is certain to experience some of the many things Perry and Susie Neubauer have contributed over their nearly five decades here. You’ll likely hear Susie’s soprano and Perry’s bass voices in the choir. And you can see Perry’s lasting contributions: the cross in the apse, the baptismal font and communion table he designed years ago, the relocated and redesigned organ, and even the sanctuary itself, which was transformed during his tenure as chair of the Buildings & Grounds Committee from an austere environment with an aging linoleum floor to the warm, welcoming space we enjoy today.

Perry and Susie, the story of your first date reads very much like a classic romance. Can you tell us how you met?

Susie: Perry was a senior at Princeton, and I had just moved there to start a job at the Firestone Library. He was attending the Nassau Street Presbyterian Church and was a regular in the choir. I began attending the same church and joined the choir too. I was too shy and nearsighted to know who anyone was outside my own section! But apparently I had been observed by a certain member of the bass section.

Perry: I called the choir director to find out who she was, found out where she worked, walked over to the library, called her from the guard’s desk to introduce myself and proposed a meeting at the card catalog.

Susie: He invited me to the upcoming Penn Weekend. By the end of the first half we’d gotten soaked by the rain, I had showered in his dorm as he stood guard—a bit scandalous, I know, but I just knew somehow I could trust this guy—had dinner at his club, and attended a play. When I missed the last bus and Perry rode me home on his handlebars, we both knew this was the real deal.

So how did you arrive here in Cambridge?

Perry: I moved up to start at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. We maintained a long-distance relationship at first, but were married the next year and Susie joined me up here. I had already started attending First Church and singing in the choir.

Susie: The quality of both the preaching and the music here really impressed us. In our fifty years at First Church, four senior pastors and five music directors have served the church, and the excellence of the pastors and music program have continued at that same high level.

Perry, you have had quite a successful career as an architect. What have been some of the most memorable projects?

Perry: Among the more memorable ones are new cities in Saudi Arabia, the National Library in Abu Dhabi, campus planning and buildings for various universities, museums in Washington, DC and Cairo, and a hotel complex in Slovenia. But the most meaningful projects have been smaller ones like the Congregational Church in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Or the Chapel I built for our engineer battalion in Vietnam, where I was also organist for the battalion. It was simple but still quite elegant. And of course the work we have done here at First Church, though that has been a more ongoing undertaking!

For those old enough to remember, the transformation of the sanctuary has been quite dramatic. What values guided your work on that project?

Perry: I hadn’t been at First Church for very long, and almost by happenstance I fell into a conversation with our new minister at the time, Wells Grogan, about the design of churches. He explained Karl Barth’s notion of organizing the church around the communion table to facilitate a more communal worship experience, in contrast to the more “performance-style” worship that was typical of the day. Wells challenged us to make the church accessible in this day and age. And so our renovations in the sanctuary for me have become symbolic of our broader intellectual and spiritual openness.

How so?

Part of the physical changes to the sanctuary were to make worship more communal and relational. We moved the organ and choir to one of the transepts and it opened up the physical space so that the worshipping community is on three sides of the table—you can see your fellow congregants face to face. It also helped make the church more accessible to people of differing physical abilities. But there is a broader strand of accessibility woven into what we do. We started using grape juice at the communion table instead of wine, so that there were no barriers to alcoholics being able to receive communion. Not long ago I joked that I wasn’t very fond of grape juice and would rather have wine, but our current senior minister, Dan Smith, helped me see that what we do around accessibility is serious business, not to be taken lightly. Our Open and Affirming welcome to LGBT people, our open invitation to the communion table, our homeless shelter, our nursery school, the many concerts in the sanctuary, our inclusive language hymnal…these are things we do to try and minister to our fellow human beings, to reach each person where they are. People are welcome to slap the “PC” label on it—but there is a deeper motivation here in terms of living the call of the gospel.

Serious business indeed. I’m curious…you are both smart, talented, capable folks, and there are so many other organizations to which you could have contributed your talents over the years. Why First Church?

Susie: The simplest answer is because First Church has given so much to me. I will admit that often when Sunday rolls around I think “Oh, do I have to go to church? Can’t I just have a two-day weekend like so many other people?” But then I arrive here and I am so fed by this community, from the preaching to the music to the service and justice work. And of course so many of our best friendships have grown out of this church.

Church isn’t necessarily a place where people go to find their best friends. Why do you think your relationships here have been so strong for so long?

Perry: It’s hard to say, exactly, without resorting to clichés at some level. These are “my kind of people”…intelligent, well-educated, compassionate.

Susie: They’re not afraid to question the status quo. I grew up Missouri Synod Lutheran and Presbyterian and never really rocked the boat or questioned things. But early on here when I was teaching Sunday School (I must have been in my late 20s) an issue came up and I remember saying “I’m not sure we should emphasize that aspect of the story if we want people to believe that Jesus is God” and a friend responded “I’m not sure we should be teaching our children that Jesus is God.” I was shocked by her candor but at the same time I was impressed with her ability to speak her question out loud. At First Church people may be at different places on that and so many other questions, but for the first time I found myself in an environment where it was OK to name my doubts. That kind of safe space to question and wrestle with the really difficult, thorny issues of the Christian tradition is such a gift to me.

With a long history at this church under your belts, you two certainly bring a perspective on First Church’s past. Where does its future lie?

Susie: My hope is that we serve as an example of a different kind of Christianity. Most people think of Christians as judgmental and close-minded. But the Christianity that we preach and practice here is more open, liberal…most people don’t realize that this exists. So it’s our job to let them know about it.

Perry: We have the opportunity to make faith matter in the world. For me, Dan’s sermons are so insightful and they speak to what’s on our minds today. We are not just all by ourselves here working in a dark room in an old church building—we are out in the world trying to address society’s problems, and bringing a spiritual and religious interpretation as to what we see. As I have studied the life of Jesus, I have come to understand how he was formed by his society and his environment, yet he somehow transcended, changed, and enhanced them. He had the guts to do it. But we’re not off the hook—the call is the same for us today. The same Holy Spirit that guided Jesus guides and informs my life today.

Susie: In the United Church of Christ, we have a saying that “God is still speaking.” I think God wants us to care about the big issues of our day. Things like the election of a black president, or the growing acceptance of LGBT persons—these are social issues, but I think there is a spiritual element to them. I see in them the movement of the Holy Spirit, and I believe these are the kinds of things Jesus would bless if he lived today. It is that same Spirit that animates our life at First Church, and that gives us a bright future.