After 18 years serving his congregants at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street, the Rev. Daniel Massie stepped down in May because he needed more balance in his life. He wanted to spend more time with his family, get in better shape and felt that change would be good for the church.
Retirement kicked off in June, but Massie was sidelined by knee surgery in August, a family illness in October, and a call from a church in Orangeburg in need of a preacher.
He has committed to spend five days a week in Orangeburg for a year until they are able to hire a full time preacher. He’s enjoying it more than he thought he would because it’s a smaller church with great leadership and not as many weddings. Charleston’s reputation as a top wedding destination kept him busy throughout the year. (In his career Massie has preformed 509 weddings, 860 baptisms, 441 funerals, 1,716 sermons, and initiated 2,705 new members.)
Recently, Massie led a prayer at a memorial service honoring the lives of eight men and women who died homeless this year in the tri-county area. The 11th annual event, held in Marion Square, was put on by the nonprofit homeless shelter One80 Place, where Massie serves on its board.
And in January, Massie and Rabbi Stephanie Alexander from Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue will take a group to Israel for 10 days. The group comprises Presbyterian and Jewish members who will visit Christian and Jewish sites.
So much for retirement.
“Dr. Danny Massie’s service to our community extends far beyond the members of First (Scots) Presbyterian Church. His compassion and interest in the well-being of all the citizens of Charleston, as well as his bright disposition, ready smile and good sense of humor have warmed the hearts of many,” wrote Mayor Joe Riley in a commemorative booklet created by Massie’s congregation upon his retirement.
Massie grew up in Mississippi during the tumultuous Civil Rights era. His mother was plagued with depression and his father struggled with alcohol, and the local Presbyterian church sheltered young Massie and his brother. “The church became my family,” he says, explaining the origins of his calling that has defined him for the past 43 years of his life.
Massie received his doctorate from the Union Theological Seminary of Virginia in 1975 and after a fellowship in Scotland, returned to Mississippi where he worked as a senior pastor at a Presbyterian church in Vicksburg. Massie and his Tita wife spent 13 years in Kingsport, Tenn., raising their four children, and then moved to Charleston in 1997.
After four decades at the pulpit preaching three to four times a week, Massie has a closet full of archived sermons that he revisits for inspiration. He is humble about his role and explains that his job is to help steer and shape the change for his congregants.
“I’m there to get the conversation going,” he says. His congregants are free to disagree with him. “I don’t have all the answers. We are learning and growing together. I would never want to serve a church where everyone looked alike and thought alike.”
The specifics of the conversations have changed from year to year and church to church, but the challenges remain the same. Massie grew up thinking that homosexuality was a choice, but he doesn’t believe that anymore. In 2011, the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a change in its Book of Order effectively permitting district church governments to ordain gay and lesbian clergy. Voting members of the local Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery, which oversees 49 churches in the southern quarter of the state, opted against the change in a close tally: 49-55.
“Christian revelation is progressive,” Massie said in an earlier interview. “It happens over time. The church has been wrong about many things in the past, and likely will be wrong about other matters in the future.”
Inclusion is an important issue for Massie. “In religion, we are good at excluding people,” he says, referring to the late American poet Carl Sandburg, who once told a journalist that “exclusion” was the ugliest word in the English language.
Crossing barriers is a mission that is near and dear to Massie’s heart. During his tenure at First (Scots), he worked with the Christian Jewish Council and the Charleston Area Justice Ministry to build bridges of understanding. These groups share the goal of raising awareness of social justice issues and connecting people from diverse communities. Massie calls it comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.
“For nearly two decades, I have worked with Danny in the Christian-Jewish Council,” says James R. Sawers, an ordained Methodist minister and religion scholar. “His moral compass, scholarship and dedication to his faith make him a person who can be relied upon to significantly contribute to any situation. He is a most valued and supportive individual, clergyman and friend.”
The Presbyterian Church provided a home to Massie when he was in need, and he nurtured that home and its congregants for the next 50 years. Today, he can be found riding his bike along the roads of Orangeburg, attending services at churches throughout the Lowcountry, and maybe even reading a book for pleasure.