The confluence of religious observances at this time of year — Ramadan, Easter, Purim and Passover — got us thinking about some of the region’s religious and spiritual leaders. In a community rocked by the Oct. 25 tragedy, who are some of the individuals responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of so many — no matter what? Why did they choose the paths they did? How do they view the challenges before them? What sustains them over the course of so many years? And like many of us at one time or another, do they ever question their life choices?

We posed these questions and more to four area faith leaders: Senior Pastor Dan Church of South Lewiston Baptist Church, Rabbi Sruli Dresdner of Temple Shalom Synagogue Center in Auburn, Imam Saleh Mahamud of the Lewiston & Auburn Islamic Center and Father Michael Sevigny of Lewiston-based Prince of Peace Parish.

Senior Pastor Dan Church sits in the South Lewiston Baptist Church earlier this month. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal


‘Sharing burdens, sadness, grief, encouragement. We were absolutely made for that connection with other people and with God.’ — Senior Pastor Dan Church of South Lewiston Baptist Church

Pastor Dan Church, 42, the son of South Lewiston Baptist Church retired Pastor Bryan Church, admits he never envisioned a religious path for himself. Nor did he ever consider returning to Lewiston, where his family moved when he was 9 from Rochester, New York, once he graduated from Lewiston High School. “It’s hilarious if anyone knew me as a kid,” he admits. “This for sure was not on my radar. I had no intention of entering religious life or being here. I still wanted to follow Christ but in a different vocation, such as sports management, being an athletic director or coaching.”

Following graduation in 2000, Church spent a year at Word of Life Bible Institute in New York. He recalls during that time God “really started to put a desire in me,” not only to study God’s word, but also to share it, teach it and enter ministry. “I wasn’t quite sure what that would look like, but the desire came out of nowhere,” he recalls. “I was devouring it. And I loved to study, which again, if anyone really knew me in high school, would have been something like, ‘Huh! Something’s happened to him!’”


In the wake of 9/11, he experienced what he calls a challenge to his faith, as did others, he says. He asked himself if God makes any sense, or provides a coherent explanation, or has a viewpoint of suffering and redemption. “If I couldn’t find something in Christianity — in God’s word to help in some way with all that, how could I be a pastor if I didn’t think he had an answer for the hardest thing in life?”

Church found his answer through study, graduating from Liberty University, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 2005. He remembers the kindness of family and friends during his search. He came to an understanding that the heart of Christianity is the heart of the suffering of Jesus and his resurrection. “So we have a God who is not immune to suffering, who has not stayed out of the way of suffering, but actually entered into it,” he says.

Church says he was also led to writers like C.S. Lewis, who wrote profoundly about suffering as someone who observed and experienced it himself. Church cites Lewis’s books “Mere Christianity” and “The Weight of Glory” in helping him “. . . be formative in my own faith — not just as a pastor but listening to other voices different from the way in which I was raised. As it relates to suffering, (the books) were a game-changer,” he says. “I realized how ignorant I was. I had a grace awakening.”

Working in Virginia and meeting his future wife, Kate, on a visit home to Maine, Church returned permanently, becoming interim pastor and then pastor at Buckfield’s Faith Bible Chapel from 2010-2019. His path eventually led him back to his father’s church, where he is now at its spiritual helm.

“As the scripture says, ‘to weep with those who weep.’ I can only pour out what I’m allowing God to pour in,” he says of his dedication to ministry over so many years. “The Holy Spirit pours love into our hearts, especially in times of trials and challenges and suffering. For me, continuing to dwell — truly dwell, reflect, meditate on the gospel that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again — that truth is what God continues to use to sustain me.”

He adds that nothing can prepare a person for what happened on Oct. 25 in Lewiston. And yet, going back to the gospel, he says, “. . . the ugliness of the gospel — the gritty, even gory violence of the cross of Christ, but also the resurrection (and) the hope that he would enter into our sin to redeem us from our sin and suffering — that’s who our God is that we follow. It’s pointing to the one who made us and who can identify with us. That’s life saving. It’s life transforming for me and for each of us.”


Rabbi Sruli Dresdner performs with his wife, Lisa Mayer, and daughter, Charlie, during a Purim service at Temple Shalom Synagogue in Auburn earlier this month. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal


‘No matter who we are, we all carry godliness and goodness and love within us — if we can access God.’ — Rabbi Sruli Dresdner of Temple Shalom Synagogue Center

Former Wall Street lawyer and musician Sruli Dresdner, 62, reveals it came as much of a shock to him as it did others around him that he ultimately chose religious life. Though he was raised in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Queens, attending a small Hasidic synagogue and religious day school, the son of a Holocaust survivor and an escapee wasn’t always committed to this path.

Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, Dresdner says there was a shift in thinking in the mid-1970s among Holocaust survivors in the ultra-orthodox world that their children should go to college and pursue a profession. This was instead of entering into religious life, which had been the preferred goal. “But the leadership of the ultra-orthodox world didn’t agree with this new line of thinking,” he recalls. “It was a very complicated time and I got caught up in it.”

Opting to follow tradition and attend a yeshiva, or rabbinical college, he was ordained a rabbi, but began to question the path he’d chosen. When considering options, law schools, he says, favored the kind of intense, immersive studies students undertook at yeshiva, finding parallels in the kind of discipline required to tackle equally rigorous curriculums.

“At the yeshiva, we studied Talmud (the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law) all day and night. This was excellent training for law school. So much of what is studied in yeshiva in terms of codes, policy, contracts, property law, domestic law, criminal law, procedure, the way courts operate, witnesses and more is a natural springboard for law school,” he explains. Scoring high on his law boards, he was accepted to Fordham University School of Law.


Practicing on Wall Street for eight years, Dresdner became increasingly uncomfortable with the profession’s overarching emphasis on materialism. “One of the approaches to life that the Hebrew world encourages is a dedication to spiritualism with a de-emphasis on material accumulation. That was who I was,” he says. “On Wall Street, I was a fish out of water.”

So what was next? He’d grown up playing Jewish music on the clarinet and while at the yeshiva was part of its band. He soon enrolled at “Klez camp,” a gathering of musicians interested in the historical Eastern European Jewish music known as Klezmer that had fallen out of favor in the 1950s and ‘60s, but revived in the ‘80s. “I felt immediately at home with people dedicating themselves to Jewish and Yiddish music and culture,” he says. “After a harrowing self-investigation, I left Wall Street.”

Dresdner soon earned a living as a musician. He and wife, Lisa, a violinist, played at bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, Jewish Community Centers, festivals, synagogues, school programs, for the New York Mets and more, even performing in faraway places like Krakow, Jerusalem and Toronto, and appearing on PBS and NPR. It was a welcome re-entry into Jewish life, where he eventually became cantor for the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur) and substitute rabbi at the West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, New York, for 15 years. This was followed by helming a New Jersey synagogue on its last legs. An opening for a rabbi at Auburn’s Temple Shalom in 2014 drew the Dresdners to Maine, where they knew immediately it was a great place to raise then 5-year-old twins Charlie and Johnny.

Dresdner believes his role as spiritual leader to his 80-family congregation means becoming a part of each family. “You are with them in all of their life’s moments. It can be draining at times but it is very satisfying.” He says that at the outset of his religious career, he was anxious— even nervous — about dealing with people in their most tragic times, particularly surrounding death. But he was surprised to learn that in those moments, he is the most useful and of the most value. “I can’t articulate what I give them and why they even want me around,” he says, “but I guess it’s holding their hands, guiding them through the process, going through our rituals and standing with them when they most need this kind of support.”

October, he continues, specifically the 7th when Hamas attacked and the 25th when the Lewiston mass shooting occurred, was a really daunting month to be a Jew and spiritual leader anywhere in the world. “From the perspective of a grief counselor, with the Lewiston shooting there was so much grief we could not process immediately because we were all on lockdown and not able to be together. It was similar to COVID,” he says. “It was a challenging time to be a spiritual leader because you couldn’t connect with the people who were suffering the most.”

Connected with eight of Maine’s 11 rabbis, who provide a network of support for one another, Dresdner is also close to a pastor whom he says intuited he might need support in October and generously provided it. “This is a very strong faith community. We take very good care of each other.”


Sheikh Saleh Mahamud stands in the Lewiston & Auburn Islamic Center in Lewiston earlier this month. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal


‘One day we will all leave and go to be with God. Our reward is paradise.’ — Sheikh Saleh Mahamud of the Lewiston & Auburn Islamic Center

Growing up in Somalia, Sheikh Saleh Mahamud’s paternal grandfather was an imam and a beloved member of his community. He passed away a half-century ago in a place and time completely unrelated to our society, says Mahamud. Today the challenges religious leaders face are vastly different.

Mahamud, 55, first emigrated to Egypt and then Atlanta. In 2007 he came to Lewiston, encouraged by a friend who was a resident. “I became an imam here by accident,” he reveals. Mahamud had taught the Quran in Somalia, Egypt and Atlanta, though not as an imam, and when he arrived in Maine he found that Lewiston’s Islamic spiritual leader had left. There was a hole to fill. “No one was taking care of the community,” he says, noting Lewiston is a small city with limited income possibilities, making it hard to attract another cleric. He filled the position on a temporary basis and never left.

The city has a lot of problems, he reflects. Families have come from Africa and there are cultural differences. Parents are struggling to raise their children. Mahamud’s spiritual support of the community includes teaching Islamic studies to youth on evenings and weekends at the mosque, with classes on the Quran open to all ages on the weekends. He provides family counseling and grief counseling 24/7, and among his many responsibilities in a burgeoning community of immigrants is to provide counseling at the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn. He is there for members of any faith who desire his services.

Members of his faith who attend the Lewiston & Auburn Islamic Center “are walking with me,” he says. He also feels a brotherhood with Lewiston, Auburn and Portland spiritual leaders of other faiths, especially apparent around the time of the shooting, when they met via Zoom and other means. Twice a year he attends a national meeting with leaders of 30 mosques. There they are able to share stories and find solutions to individual community issues.


“What I do in this life is for the sake of God,” he says.

Father Michael Sevigny waits for parishioners to arrive for a Spanish Mass at Prince of Peace Parish Center in Lewiston earlier this month. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


‘What I get to do is a God-given gift. I am continuously inspired by the community I serve.’ — Father Michael Sevigny of Prince of Peace Parish

From age 4 or 5, Father Michael Sevigny, 73, knew he was headed for the priesthood. “I don’t really know where it came from,” he says. “No one in my family embraced religious life.”

Attending Catholic grammar and high schools in Sanford, he “played priest all the time with five brothers and three sisters, celebrating Mass in the house every day.” At age 14, his commitment was so strong he left Maine and went away to seminary in upstate New York, but stayed only a year, due to expenses, returning home to Sanford’s St. Ignatius High School and working at Hannaford. In New York, he’d met the Capuchin Franciscans, who’d made an impression on him. He became a novitiate of the order in Milton, Massachusetts, soon completing four years at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire, followed by four years of theology at Maryknoll Seminary in upstate New York where he’d spent a formative year.

Under the auspices of Archbishop Terrence Cook, Sevigny holds the distinction of being in the first class of priests ordained at the famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. In 1978 he was sent to a Spanish-speaking parish in lower Manhattan. He spoke no Spanish whatsoever. “I knew if I was going to be of any use, I had to learn the language,” he says, arranging for immersive language study and ministry in Guatemala, followed by time in Honduras and Bolivia. “It was all little tin huts, no floors and no running water,” he recalls. “The intense Third-World poverty was eye opening. But it also gave me an appreciation for what I had and what the people leaving these countries leave behind and why.”


Pastoring in lower Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem for about seven years beginning in 1983, Sevigny says the amount of violence he saw and its repercussions — people jumping off roofs, crack murders, burying children — was also eye opening. Still, he has never questioned his calling.

Returning to Maine in 2020 to serve in the Diocese of Portland’s Office of Spanish Ministry, he crisscrosses the state providing marriage and baptismal preparation, faith formation for adults and children, education about Maine’s social services support and helping Latinos become more involved in parish life. He celebrates Spanish Mass in Portland, Lewiston, Bangor and Waterville, logging 1,000 miles a week on his car.

Residing at Prince of Peace Parish with an African priest, two Indian priests and two diocesan priests, Sevigny says living with an international community — sharing meals, evening prayers and more — sustains him. He also has a strong source of support in Father Daniel Greenleaf, parish pastor. It’s a support network if he needs it, all under the same roof. Given a harp by a friend, Sevigny takes lessons and practices, well, religiously, learning songs like “Amazing Grace,” helping him to relax.

He is also known to apply his spiritual support to emergency responders. “In NYC, I lived very close to the police and fire station,” he recalls. “I would always bless those guys going out because they put their lives on the line every day. You never knew what was going to happen.” His brother-in-law is a former 25-year career Marine and retired New Hampshire police officer and detective, so Sevigny has continued the practice of blessing every passing police car and ambulance he sees on his daily travels throughout Maine.

On the heels of the October shooting, and based particularly on a February incident when someone (non-Hispanic) with a backpack entered the church and pulled a knife during a Spanish Mass, the doors at the Prince of Peace Parish Center in Lewiston are now locked 15 minutes after the liturgy begins. But Sevigny continues to embrace his work wherever he ministers. “I enjoy tremendously being a priest. I couldn’t do anything else. My ministry is my life.”

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