Making a splash in Malden

Every once in awhile a relatively small institution like a church provides a forum for someone who has the potential to make an impact on people well beyond his or her congregation.

The late Walter R. Murray Jr. was one of those people. Presiding over Zion Baptist Church’s congregation in the 1990s, Murray was a small man with a big voice who helped calm Lynn during a tumultuous time in the city’s history.

Malden may well have found its own Walter Murray with the selection of the Rev. Otto O’Connor to become the 36th Settled Minister of one of the oldest churches in New England, the First Parish in Malden, Unitarian Universalist (UUA) on Elm Street.

O’Connor, who is transgender, has lent his voice to national debates, including the Aug. 19 Fight Supremacy rally in Boston that took a stand against White Supremacists and neo-Nazis. O’Connor joined others in advocating around the country for LGBTQ rights, and fought the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008, which was eventually passed in a state vote, making same-sex marriages illegal. The legislation was later ruled unconstitutional.

He brings his faith and his convictions to a church deeply rooted in Malden’s history with a congregation taking pride in First Parish’s reputation as one of the most progressive churches in New England.

The church mission statement underscores the congregation’s commitment to reaching out to worshippers “across the gender and sexuality spectrum.”  

First Parish, according to reports, was one of the churches in the region to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, displaying a banner of support on its lawn. It is also one of the only churches in the region certified as an LGBTQ Welcoming Congregation by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

When violence claimed the lives of young and old in Lynn in the 1990s, Murray walked out of Zion Baptist and into the city’s neighborhoods, where he added his voice to calls for a community-wide effort to end violence. He spoke about the need for more youth-oriented activities to draw teenagers away from violence. Zion backed up his words by introducing and providing those activities in concert with other organizations.

O’Connor doesn’t take the helm of his flock until this weekend but he has already declared his hiring “… a fantastic match.” It is hard not to imagine his advocacy and his track record in speaking on behalf of a wide spectrum of people fitting perfectly with First Parish’s long and time-honored tradition of inclusion and diversity.

Malden, in turn, is sure to welcome him into the city’s ongoing discussions over making city government and, by extension, the city more diverse. Home to a relatively large Asian-American population, Malden, led by Mayor Gary Christenson, is including a wide range of residents into a discussion about making the city as welcoming as any in Massachusetts.

Walter Murray left a legacy in Lynn that continues to thrive through the work of individuals and organizations. Otto O’Connor has brought energy and passion to a house of worship inspired to help him use faith to make the world a better place for all.

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