Sitting down in the Great Hall in the rear of the First Presbyterian Church in Saranac Lake, the early snow cascading from the October sky, one feels a very real sense of warmth coming from the other side of the table.
Pastor Joann White is describing her Adirondack story, and the faith-based passion radiating from her is a strong counterpoint to the messy nature occurring outside.
Her story begins only six years ago, calendar-wise, but has a fullness that gives a sense of much more time spent here in the heart of the High Peaks. Joann first came here looking for the next challenge of her life. She was finished with an associate pastor position in a community outside of Chicago and felt a strong calling to continue her path as a full-fledged spiritual guide for a community that needed her.
(Photo — Michael Williams)
She sent her resume to a number of churches that were seeking a pastor. She chose the First Presbyterian Church in this "Little City in the Adirondacks" as one of the places to visit. A flight into Burlington, Vt., with views of the mountains, piqued her spirit. A windy trip across the lake on the ferry challenged her stomach. And a drive into the village that included a rainbow arching over the peaks finished her evocative travels into this first interview. Joann did not know if this was some sign that this was the place, but all the elements sure did catch her interest.
The meeting with the church's Pastor Nominating Committee and their expression of the needs of the church resonated with her immediately. Joann felt that her natural gift of healing and facilitating forgiveness would fit well with this community seeking both. The tour of the town injected a sense of vibrancy that relieved one of Joann's wonderings about life in smaller communities.
"In all honesty, they did pull out all the stops to show me all the place has to offer," Joann contends, mentioning a show at the BluSeed Studios as one of the highlights.
Topping the sales job was the surrounding landscape.
"The feeling of wildness was very striking to me," Joann recalls.
She returned to Chicago to mull over the three job offers she quite suddenly found before her. First Presbyterian, with its people and setting, won the lottery, and the calling found its home.
The six years since has been full and fruitful to both Joann and the community she helps guide forward. She felt a very real need for a healing hand within the church and has worked hard to both mend any past rifts and move the current church forward with conviction and energy. These efforts and the early results of them have only reaffirmed thoughts she made the right choice those six years ago.
"I will say that I feel I'm where I'm supposed to be, doing what God calls me to do," Joann asserts.
Joann's Adirondack story continues, intertwined with the plans to forward progress of the church. A Church Health Team, which listens to the congregation and works collaboratively to envision new programs, spiritual and otherwise, is one example Joann gives for that progress to become reality. Joann gets animated when she speaks of the renewed commitment to community outreach programs that have become a strong part of the plan to influence positively beyond the walls of the church. Such efforts include gardening at the Common Ground community gardens here in Saranac Lake. The church plots produced wonderfully and provided fresh produce for the Saranac Lake Interfaith Food Pantry.
"The idea of growing and sharing food seems very central to expressing a passionate spirituality in the larger community," Joann states with enthusiasm.
Another new effort is the creation of prayer shawls for those in need. Members of the church who have skills in knitting and crocheting create these pieces, infused with as much positive energy as they can muster, for the homebound and/or folks in the middle of a health crisis. The church adds a blessing, and the shawls are delivered to those in need of the support.
"It's an idea our members came up with as a way to use our skills to help provide love, prayer and support to those people who really need it at this time in their lives," Joann explains.
The story of her meeting her now-husband, Duane Gould, even has a church connection to it.
"He came up to greet me after the worship service, shook my hand, and I think we both felt some sort of connection there, a leading of the spirit," Joann remembers.
A number of comfortable interactions followed, and eventually they were married. With this, Joann asserts, her sense of place took on an even stronger feel. Beyond the church (yes Joann says, there is a beyond), downtime is spent hiking as many trails as she can with Duane and their two dogs. The recent purchase and renovation of a historic cure cottage has added another time-filling endeavor (along with more than a little dust) to Joann and Duane's existence.
All in all, life here seems to suit Joann just fine. The combination of rewarding work, community activism and exploring the wilds has created a full and flourishing contentedness that should keep her Adirondack story continuing on for many years to come.