LITCHFIELD — Rabbi Peter Oliveira initially declined the offer when asked to be the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Litchfield.

Oliveira, a Messianic rabbi who shares the Christian belief that Jesus is the Messiah, was familiar with the church and had been a guest speaker at other similar churches.

“At first I said no, because I thought it was the strangest thing,” Oliveira said. “I prayed about it and felt the conviction that if somebody is asking me to do something and advance a blessing in the community, what’s wrong with that? I ended up accepting the request.”

That was right before the COVID-19 pandemic, Oliveira said, and now he’s leading the congregation through unique and historic times as it celebrates its 300th anniversary.

Oliveira, who previously had been living in Rhode Island before moving to Haiti, first connected with the church when he returned to New England and wanted to start a Messianic congregation of his own.

“I was walking up and down all the streets and the churches and knocking on doors and asking the pastors if it’d be OK to use their space to start a little Messianic congregation in this area,” Oliveira said. “The only church that opened their doors to us was the First Congregational Church of Litchfield.”

Oliveira started the Congregation Mishkahn Nachamu, which means tabernacle of comfort, and now simultaneously leads that and the First Congregational Church of Litchfield.

In fact, his Messianic congregation is throwing a birthday party for the church’s congregation at 5 p.m. Saturday.

“The truth is, when it’s your birthday, you don’t plan your own birthday party,” Oliveira said. “Somebody who loves you does that.”

The First Congregational Church of Litchfield was founded in 1721, with the original meeting house being constructed in 1723 and was utilized as not only a place of worship, but as a community center. The church has had 28 pastors in its 300 years, among them the notable Lyman Beecher — Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father — who served the church from 1810 to 1826.

“I feel that in order for us to understand the present, you almost have to go back in time to see what happened here,” Oliveira said. “There was a group of people who didn’t want to have this dogmatic we’re this or we’re that. They decided that the most important thing is for the congregation to come together and worship together and allow each person to read the Bible and interpret it in the way that they feel without arguing.”

That openness exhibited today includes the act of allowing him to start his Messianic congregation there and later being named pastor.

“I find it fascinating that here we are 300 years later and because of that spirit of not being dogmatic, they opened their doors for a Messianic Jewish congregation and they asked a rabbi to be their pastor,” Oliveira said. “It has something to do with the spirit in which the church was formed. As a result that opened the door for what’s happening now.”

As they look toward the future of the church while reflecting on the past, Oliveira said he’s excited for the relationship between the Messianic congregation and the First Church’s congregation to continue to develop.

“The relationship is pretty unique,” he said. “We actually have people from the First Congregational Church who come on Saturdays to celebrate. Likewise, we have people from the Messianic congregation who will come on Sundays. There’s a cross-pollination of people coming from one or the other. It’s almost like they’re realizing that we’re not different, we just have different expressions of the way that we celebrate and the way that we worship.”

And from that, Oliveira said he’s been afforded a chance to learn in ways he otherwise wouldn’t have.

“Personally for me, I am amazed at how I’ve learned not to think that my way is the right way,” Oliveira said. “God can work in a variety of ways. I am humbled by it. It would be so neat if more of humanity looked at the benefit each person has and the way they see things and kind of learn from one another and be encouraged by one another. It’s been a really neat learning opportunity for me.”

Connecticut Media Group