Kevin O’Hara had dreams of becoming a teacher while growing up in suburban Philadelphia.
But as he pursued a career in education at Elizabethtown College near Harrisburg, an instructor remarked to him, “I know you’re not going to be a teacher. You’re going to finish this; you’re going to graduate from college and good luck.”
Struck by the bluntness of the assessment, O’Hara was set a bit adrift. It was his recuperation from knee surgery the following summer that unwittingly sparked what would be his new calling.
During the long days of lying on the couch, he picked up the Bible, but not because he was a believer at the time. O’Hara was a rebellious young adult and set out to prove that God doesn’t exist.
O’Hara’s mother, a regular parishioner at Augustus Lutheran Church where the family worshipped not far from home, saw him reading the Bible one day and suggested he attend seminary.
“She didn’t know that I wasn’t very happy with God, but I had nothing else to do, so by the time I graduated college I decided I was going to go straight to seminary, maybe become a youth leader,” O’Hara recalled.
A mentor who was a Lutheran pastor inspired O’Hara to take the next step and consider becoming a pastor, understanding that life and people aren’t perfect.
“He would take me fishing and that’s all we would do,” he said. “Spend that time together and he would inspire me just to be, and just to know that no matter how screwed up I was, not matter how I don’t live up to my expectations, let alone the world’s expectations, it would be okay.”
Last month, O’Hara, 36, became the new pastor at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Pleasantville, leading a congregation with close to 300 members. His new assignment presented itself after spending more than seven years as the religious leader of a church in Patchogue on Long Island.
What was gratifying to O’Hara was not only receiving well in excess of the two-thirds approval needed from the church’s membership to become its new pastor, but a unanimous vote from the congregation’s youth members.
It comes less than two years after the departure of Paul Egensteiner, who served as Emanuel Lutheran’s pastor for 22 years before he was elevated to bishop.
For O’Hara, his job right now is to listen and learn more about the congregation, its leaders and the community, not try to copy his predecessor’s style. In fact, upon getting the job at Emanuel Lutheran, the advice he received from Egensteiner was to do what he hears from God.
“If we think that we know where we’re going at this point, we’re probably not realizing the fullness of who God is at this point,” O’Hara said.
Parishioner and Pleasantville resident Sandi Whynott said what struck many of the church’s members during the search was O’Hara’s energy, enthusiasm, intellect, wit and compassion. She said that most people who meet O’Hara feel an immediate connection.
“He was quoting Leviticus and then Seinfeld in the next (moment),” Whynot said. “I mean, he’s just so relatable and approachable.”
At the beginning of February, O’Hara moved with his husband, also named Kevin, to an old house in the village, about a two-block walk from the church.
Looking back, part of O’Hara’s challenges that he had to overcome was his sexual orientation. While in seminary in 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided to be accepting of LGBTQ pastors.
But it wasn’t clear sailing for O’Hara. In fact, the new policy document hadn’t been adopted yet. Appearing before the Candidacy Committee, his relator had learned of his sexual orientation and tried to get O’Hara to incriminate himself, repeatedly asking him if there’s anything that he needed to tell the members.
O’Hara replied that how he was falling deeper into debt after paying for seminary despite working multiple jobs and that he couldn’t afford to visit the doctor.
He was accepted by the committee, allowing him to advance to his internship. The relator was removed.
O’Hara said the reception he and Kevin have received in Pleasantville has been overwhelming. The day they arrived their refrigerator was stocked with food and they received well wishes from the congregation.
“I’m completely humbled at this point,” he said. “I’m a little overwhelmed but we’ll take one day at a time and I will hopefully fill the bishop’s shoes and continue to lead this congregation.”