Cicero United Methodist Church Welcomes New Pastor – Eagle News Online
CICERO — After spending his pastoral career traveling his native Caribbean, the Reverend Jefferson Niles decided in 2017 he was ready for a new adventure.
“I began to feel after a quarter century in ministry…a new call to serve outside of my comfort zone,” Niles said.
Niles spent five years preaching at First United Methodist Church in Fulton before moving to Cicero earlier this summer. His tenure as pastor of Cicero United Methodist Church began July 1. His goals for Cicero UMC include reviving in-person church attendance, strengthening youth ministry, and holding regular Bible study sessions where people can engage in meaningful discussions beyond the Sunday service.
Born in Anguilla (pronounced “ang-GWIL-uh”), Niles’ family moved to Saint Thomas, part of the US Virgin Islands, when he was 9 months old. The Niles family – which included Jefferson, his older brother and their three younger siblings – lived in Saint Thomas for about nine years before moving back to Anguilla in the early 1970s.
Life in Anguilla was hard: their village house had no running drinking water, so they collected rainwater in a cistern. During times of drought, Niles and his siblings had to haul water from the city to their home twice a day – before school and in the evening – so the family could cook, bathe and do laundry. .
“Since then I’ve been an early riser,” he said.
Electricity was scarce and many Anguillans cooked with outdoor stone ovens. Niles’ family grew a few crops – mainly peas and corn – and raised goats. During the summer, Niles and his siblings worked in construction to pay for their school uniforms.
Despite the hardships, Niles has fond memories of his upbringing: tasting fresh milk from his grandfather’s cows, his father building and sailing a boat from Saint Thomas to Anguilla, and accompanying his uncle on surveying work. His uncle cut coconuts from palm trees for siblings.
The church was central to her family’s life. Her father was a member of the choir and both her parents were devout Christians. Niles taught Sunday school and was part of a youth group that led worship once a month. It is also at the church that he meets Annie, the girl he will one day marry.
“We knew each other in high school. We grew up in the same village. It was through the church … that we got to know each other, and our relationship grew and deepened,” Niles said.
As a young man, Niles dreamed of becoming a doctor, but as he grew older and became more involved in church life, he found his destiny lay elsewhere.
“Instead of becoming a doctor of the body, I became a doctor of souls,” he said.
In 1987 Niles left Anguilla again to attend the United Theological College of West Indies in Jamaica. He graduated in 1991 and began his two-year probationary ministerial appointment in Nevis. Jefferson and Annie Niles married in 1991 and had a daughter the following year.
His career in the Caribbean continued: Niles spent 1993-1996 in Antigua, where he was ordained in 1994. After Antigua, he spent five years in Dominica, where his son was born in 1999. Niles was was assigned to two different posts in the United States. Islands between 2001 and 2017.
It was then that his vocation shifted north. He asked permission to seek an appointment in Methodist conferences in the United States. The Upper New York (regional) annual conference of the United Methodist Church sent him to Fulton. Following the 2021 death of Cicero UMC pastor Greg DeSalvatore, UNYAC Bishop Mark Webb and his cabinet assigned Niles to Cicero.
“The most difficult aspect was the weather. We had never really experienced winter,” Niles said.
The Caribbean climate is warm and sunny – pleasant all year round except during hurricane season. Niles and his family had only seen snow on television. When he arrived in Fulton, the church outfitted him with hats, gloves, boots, and other winter clothing.
“It was a good way to help me get used to the different climate here,” he said.
Five years into his life in central New York, driving in the snow still makes him a little nervous, but his overall experiences in CNY have been positive.
“I found people to be very receptive, very open,” he said. “I am not naive. I am aware that people can make stereotypes and have their prejudices and maybe even racism can be present, [but] I have never experienced this personally with the people I have worked and served with.
Although he received a warm welcome from CNY, Niles said he noticed the political divide within his flock had deepened, especially during COVID and after events such as the murder of George Floyd by the police in 2020 and the January 6, 2021, uprising at the United States Capitol. He crafts his sermons to avoid naming particular politicians, parties or media and is careful to draw parallels with current events.
“It’s a tricky question. I try to deal with broad topics: justice, truth, fairness, love, compassion, kindness,” he said. “[I focus on] how we should treat each other regardless of race, political affiliation, religious affiliation. I try to be as biblical as possible – root what I say in the text.
Much of what Niles wants to accomplish in his congregation stems from the disconnect and isolation caused by the pandemic.
“I think a church is like a hospital. This is where we should heal. We shouldn’t add to the division,” he said.
Visiting hospitals and nursing homes was virtually impossible for much of the pandemic, Niles said. He missed playing hymns on his trumpet for nursing home residents, and he said he looked forward to getting involved in the Cicero community like he did in Fulton.
Virtual services provided a spiritual lifeline for people early in the pandemic, but Niles hopes people will feel safe returning to church with social distancing, hand sanitizer and masks. In October, Cicero UMC will once again offer two services on Sundays (8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.).
“I hope more people come out and feel a little more confident,” he said.