The Reverend Ron Cook is infusing a new spirit in the First Congregational Church of Harrison and he’s doing it with humor and wisdom, music and stories, based on a lifetime of dedication to the Christian faith – with an Australian accent.
“The Bloke,” as his email address reads, has been called as the interim minister for the First Congregational Church while church leaders seek a permanent minister, within a year or two.
“My job is fairly easily stated: to prepare the congregation for its next called pastor,” Rev. Cook said. In the meantime, on any given Sunday, the bearded, smiling minister, in his simple muslin robe tied with colorful braided ropes, inspires the congregation with music and messages loaded with laughter. His anecdotes are based on a deep understanding of the Bible with lots of Australian stories and quotes from the murder mysteries he likes to read and reports of the cricket matches he likes to watch.
Rev. Ron’s melodic voice leads Congregational attendees in new songs based on Australian, American and British hymns and refrains. There may even be a Hawaiian choral response from his year as an interim minister in Hanna, Hawaii. If you listen closely, you may hear strains from opera or jazz, his other favorite musical interests.
He explains. “We remember best when we can sing the story. That’s why ballads used to be popular for telling stories and spreading news. I was born with a voice and have always loved music. I used to sing at my boyhood church and have continued to do so ever since.”
On Sundays and during worship times, Rev. Cook teaches modern hymns that use language and symbols and imagery from the modern world. “These hymns allow us to speak our faith in our world, not Shakespeare’s or Beethoven’s ancient medieval world,” he said. “Music allows us to express fear, joy, sorrow and anger. Patriotism and history are also expressed in songs and hymns.”
Rev. Cook knew as a very young man that he was destined to be a minister. After studying as a lay minister as a teenager he began studying at a university to become a minister at the age of an American senior in high school. In 1978, after a year with his own parish, Rev. Cook was ordained. He served as a minister in Australia, coming to the U.S. in 1991 through 1994, then returning to the U.S. in 2000 to live here. He recently became a U.S. citizen.
Ron, as he prefers to be called, is no textbook minister. He may ride to work on his “motorbike,” a touring Kawasaki Concours, safely clad in armored Kevlar gear and a helmet, and while it probably is not strapped to his back on the motorcycle, his guitar is usually close by. In a recent training session for leaders, Ron started the meeting with a time for prayer and accompanied the group in learning new songs. A tablecloth displaying Australian wildflowers covered the communion table.
In his sermons and study groups, Rev. Cook shares his joy about Australian culture with an understanding of Michigan and people here. “Each congregation has its own culture and this is shown in the hymns and liturgy of the worship, so that changes how one approaches the preaching task. But there are a lot of similarities also, and the preacher brings their own culture and style to the task,” he explained. “I try to use stories from Harrison’s history and culture to make it personal to the congregation here.”
The task wasn’t quite so simple when he was the minister in remote Hana, Hawai’i at the end of a winding mountain road. “Hawai’i required extra work because of the language and culture, and one-third of the service was spoken and sung in Hawai’ian by lay leaders,” he said. “I don’t speak Hawai’ian,” he explained.
Rev. Cook and his wife, Lisa, a United Methodist minister in West Branch, have an international family, as well – four adult children – Ron’s three girls and their husbands and children are spread around the world in Saginaw; London, England; and Perth, West Australia and Lisa’s son lives in West Branch, Mich.
Rev. Cook likes the First Congregational Church and its members. “It’s a friendly church with a heart for the community and a desire to be faithful to their calling in Christ,” he said. “We love to have fun and to eat. I have been well received. I am watching the church take on a new spirit of life and hope.”
To further acquaint parishioners and the community with Australian culture and the family that inspires him, Rev. Ron and his wife, Lisa, with their family will entertain during an “Aussie” dinner and program at the First Congregational Church on Friday, Aug. 16, 6:30 p.m. Cost is $10, and tickets are limited. To purchase, call the church from 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays at (989) 539-7163. First Congregational Sunday services are open to all each week at 10:30 a.m.