Sept. 11, 2001, was a day that changed a lot of people. For Joshua Stewart, it was a day that led to a new direction in his life. “I always point to 9/11 as one of those gut-check moments,” he said.
Today, Mr. Stewart is the new lead pastor of Bedford Community Church. In 2001, he was a hotshot on Wall Street, earning promotion after promotion, making well over six figures a year. His territory was in the Hudson Valley —Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties — but his firm, Quick & Reilly, was located at 26 Broadway, about six blocks from the World Trade Center. Its building was damaged, and there was concern that the backup systems would not work, so he was given a week off.
Ultimately, he learned that two of his friends, “a couple of girls I had grown up with in Orange County” who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, perished that day. He had a week to reassess his life. At the time, he was living with his wife in what he called a Middletown “McMansion.”
“Within that week, I took a hike up in the Catskills, alone. I was clear enough to hear from God, and I knew I just had to do something else. Within two years after 9/11, I was in seminary part time; within two years after that, I was in seminary full time.”
The point of no return came in 2003, when Quick & Reilly was sold to Bank of America. At the time, he was attending Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack. At an introductory company luncheon in Key Biscayne, Florida, Mr. Stewart, who is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, was offered another promotion — this time, to join a practice in Miami that dealt with all of South America. He and his wife realized that if he took this opportunity, “we would never be allowed to do what we were meant to do.”
Within two months they had sold their house and moved into his parents’ house. Mr. Stewart went to seminary full time and his wife went to college, where she studied Christian therapy. “We lost some friends over it,” he recalls. “They said I was throwing everything away, and I was so successful — why would I do that to go to seminary? They just couldn’t understand.”
Married for 26 years, Mr. Stewart says he and his wife, Denise, are a power team. “My wife has her own practice in Orange county, and constantly has requests to appear and to write. We’ve been utterly supportive of each other. She really is the perfect partner to walk this path.”
Currently they still live in Montgomery, though he says the plan is to move closer. Their three adult children, who are 25, 23 and 21, are all at home right now due to COVID-19, but two of them plan to leave soon.
As others have noted, getting to know a new community during the pandemic is a major challenge, and it has been no different for Mr. Stewart. “The church has a lot of existing connections, but COVID has slowed my ability to make those connections personally,” he said. “I must have been absent the year that they taught pastoring through a pandemic in seminary.”
Though acknowledging it has been a challenge, Mr. Stewart said the dream of Bedford Community Church is that it will be a place of hope. He offered perspective.
“Jesus described that we would be salt and light,” he said. “The idea of salt is it adds flavor and preserves. The idea of light is it chases away the darkness. So, we really want to be a church that is actively involved in the greater good of the community. I’ve stepped into a church that was already doing that. I love the fact that Bedford Community Church has a rich history of serving the community. I want to continue that tradition.”
Mr. Stewart talks about many new people coming into the community — not only in terms of new people moving into the area, but of people coming to church. “COVID-19 has sort of opened the floodgates of people that are coming back to church,” he said. “Just like after 9/11, people are moving back to what is important: faith and family.” He said he wants to help these families navigate these challenging times, and then take it further, reaching out to those who have unmet needs. “The myth of northern Westchester is that everybody is fine,” he said.
Bedford Community Church is having in-person services, though adhering to all the precautions outlined in state and national guidelines. “To abide by the guidelines, we removed all the pews; they limited our ability to maximize the sanctuary. We now have chairs that are socially distanced,” Mr. Stewart said. The pews were donated to another institution that needed them.
“I think COVID-19 is going to make a lot of changes, and not only to how we do life and how we do church,” he said. “I think this pandemic is going to be a post-911 world on steroids. We live in a world where most people want to belong; we’re just missing being present with each other. Church is filling that need.”
The church’s live, in-person services take place Sundays at 9:30 and 11 a.m. Recorded services are also available on YouTube and Facebook, said Mr. Stewart. “From our standpoint, we want to stand ready and prepared to be a church that survives, to be an organization for caring for people and filling their needs. Churches had kind of moved away from that,” he noted.
Mr. Stewart is exploring possibilities to establish new community ties and reaching out to those in need. “There are a variety of different areas,” he said. “We don’t know what that is yet. I’ve done extensive mission work in Guatemala, and I speak Spanish fluently, so we’ll see.”
“My dream,” Mr. Stewart said, “is if BCC were to disappear off the face of the earth, everybody in northern Westchester would say, ‘What are we going to do without them?’”