Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight


Stanfield, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, with his wife, Lorraine Dudley Stanfield '83, a doctor at a nearby community health center, and their children.

April 9, 2003:

Ministering to South Boston
Urban pastor Burns Stanfield '82 helps low-income neighbors

As minister of Fourth Presbyterian Church in low-income, working class South Boston, Burns Stanfield '82 is part preacher, part community activist, part social worker, and part counselor.

Since he took over as pastor in 1991, the congregation has grown from 25 to about 120 members. But his church, located in the Andrew Square neighborhood, serves hundreds more every year through its programs, including a free summer day camp, youth groups, a food pantry, music and art classes, and tutoring. Most of children and adults who participate in those programs are not members of the church.

After earning a master of divinity from Harvard Divinity School, Stanfield knew he wanted to work in an urban neighborhood. "I wanted to be a part of a community. I wanted to be part of an area where there could be a sense of being connected to neighbors. ... And I knew I felt a call to be with an underserved area, an area that needed support — that was important to me."

The church stands between two housing projects, and a third is close by. In the last 10 years, he says, people from all over the world have moved in — from China, Latin America, Haiti, Vietnam, Afghanistan. "It's like the U.N.," he says. Most of the children in his programs live in the projects and the church serves people of all faiths, not just Presbyterians. "It's one of the poorest areas of the city," says Stansfield.

Over the years he and members of the congregation have advocated for affordable housing, living wages and health care for janitors, and better relations between teenagers and police officers. Currently, as some developers are moving into South Boston, erecting high-end condos and commercial space, Stansfield is part of an impact advisory group that is trying to ensure that developers in South Boston "respect" and "treat with sensitivity" local low-income residents. "We're always worrying about squeezing low-income people out," he says.

Stanfield, a Woodrow Wilson School major at a Princeton who was active in Triangle, the Jazz Ensemble, and Student Volunteers Council, had been thinking of becoming a minister all through college. After dabbling for a few years after graduation — volunteering in Kentucky at a home for disadvantaged kids and then working for a lawyer in L.A. while performing with a mime troupe made up of Princeton friends — he enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, where he now teaches preaching and Presbyterian polity. After graduation, he entertained "one more interruption" — he toured with the band Scruffy the Cat, playing organ and piano, for two years before joining Fourth Presbyterian.

The church's programs, particularly those geared toward children in the community, provide a safety net. "We'll have kids who'll connect with the church, and they'll be from horrific family situations but then somebody else in the congregation will end up being a foster parent for them for a while," says Stansfield.

Stanfield has seen some people turn their lives around with help from members of the congregation. He hired a former alcoholic to teach one of the art classes. "He poured himself into teaching kids art," says Stanfield. He eventually found a job, married, and is expecting his first child. A teenager who had been "running with a gang" got involved with the church and found a mentor in Stansfield and another member of the church. After serving time in prison, he has left gang life and will graduate from high school. "It feels like a miracle," says Stanfield.

His congregation, says Stansfield, "isn't just a community center where I log in my hours. I'm friend with these folks. I'm connected to people's lives and I get to see kids grow up."

Serving the community seems to run in Stanfield's family. His wife, Lorraine Dudley Stanfield '83, an internist who teaches medical students at Boston University School of Medicine, is a staff physician at a community health center in nearby Dorchester, where the Stanfield's live. Lorraine also sings in Fourth Presbyterian's choir, and the Stanfield's three children attend Sunday school and sing in the children's choir.

One challenge ahead for him and the congregation is raising money for an addition to the church. With the new space, he wants to develop an after-school program for the kids in the projects. So far he has raised $300,000 toward a goal of $1.3 million.

About his work with South Boston's poor and diverse population, he says, "I love that it feels that it makes a difference."

By K.F.G.