The Working Waterfront

Chebeague chooses new chaplain

Victor Diaz aims for ‘active presence’ in community

By Susan Q. Stranahan
Posted 2023-12-22
Last Modified 2023-12-22

Late last year, the search began for a new pastor to serve the Chebeague Community Church, the island’s historic (and only) church. Islanders had practically written the job description themselves. All that remained was to find the right person.

In October, Victor Diaz was chosen by the congregation in a joyful investiture ceremony. He plans to assume his new duties in late December, becoming the 92nd leader of the church, which traces its founding by Methodists to 1802.

Diaz, 49, might seem an unusual choice. A native Texan, he worked for 11 years as a corporate chaplain at a giant meat-packing plant in Nebraska. He co-owned a fitness center. In 2020 he returned to his hometown of El Paso to become an end-of-life counselor at a hospice.

A native Texan, he worked for 11 years as a corporate chaplain at a giant meat-packing plant…

He’d never even been to Maine until this summer, when he visited a friend on Chebeague only to learn the church was hiring.

That’s not all that sets Diaz apart. He chooses not to be called a “minister” or a “pastor.” His choice: “chaplain.” But, he quickly adds, “I’m OK with just being called Victor; I don’t need a title.”

What is most important to Diaz—and to the church leaders who selected him—is to become an active presence in the community.

“I want to be available to people of all faiths, to people of no faiths, and to be there for them in times of need, or celebration, without the constraints of religion and denomination,” he says.

That echoes the criteria of the search committee, which formed upon the resignation of the previous minister. The process included an online survey of islanders. By a wide majority, the respondents ranked the church as an integral part of Chebeague life.

Victor Diaz
Victor Diaz

What did they value most? By large margins, celebrations of life (specifically, weddings and funerals), engaging sermons, and pastoral care and outreach.

But also important was being a “welcoming” presence for everyone, regardless of religious background or beliefs—to be “inclusive, open and affirming.”

“Community is the heart and soul of Chebeague,” explains Diaz, “so it stands to reason that the pastor of the church should be available to anyone.”

Rochelle Rice, who heads the church council, is confident that Diaz will be a good fit in his new job.

“Victor is able to speak to all generations,” she says. “I feel like he stands in the middle and can speak to our traditional, older population as well as attract others who are younger, like millennials.”

And that, leaders believe, is essential to the survival of the Chebeague Community Church, which, like the island population, is aging.

Two years ago, the congregation disaffiliated from the United Methodist Church, severing ties to a denomination that had been a presence on Chebeague since 1802. The vote to leave was in protest of the United Methodist Church’s exclusion of gays and disavowal of same-sex marriage. It was a plucky move for a congregation that counts fewer than 60 members.

Many islanders, plus those who return each summer, had longstanding ties to the Chebeague church and to Methodism, making the disaffiliation decision even more sensitive. In the end, the congregation agreed and rewrote its mission: To become “an inclusive, diverse, and caring Christian community… reaching out to all people on the island and beyond.”

When Diaz was voted in by the congregation, many filling the pews that morning were descendants of church leaders whose names are memorialized on the tall stained-glass windows that grace the wood-paneled sanctuary. The church, built in 1855, has been used for religious services, concerts and special island events ever since.

Across the street is the parish hall, home to many island activities, and the parsonage, where Diaz will live. His job is part-time, and he intends to spend his first year on Chebeague familiarizing himself with the community before undertaking any additional responsibilities. Affordable housing is one of his interests.

“Maine wasn’t on my radar at all,” he says of his new post. How he ended up here still amazes him. “The timing of everything was incredible.”

During the pandemic, Diaz joined an online Bible study group, one of whose members (he’d later learn) had long family ties to Chebeague. The study group met when they all arrived on the island for an in-person visit this summer. It was then he learned of the pastoral vacancy.

“I felt the phone ringing, as they say,” he laughs. He applied and was hired.

While Diaz is making a leap of geography, he and Rice both agree the Chebeague community will also be taking its own leap. This won’t be a traditional minister standing in the pulpit on Sundays, Rice acknowledges. “He will be out in the community. He doesn’t want barriers. He wants to be very visible.”

Rice is confident Diaz will help achieve the goal set by church members when they voted to become an independent congregation. “This says to me we are a community church.”