GRANITE SPRINGS, N.Y. - Adversity and tragedy have been known to push some frustrated worshipers away from the church. Not so for Rev. Hal Roark, whose hard times only drove him closer to God, and eventually to become the new pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd, an Episcopal church serving Granite Springs.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, leaving neighborhoods in ruins and killing more than 1,200 people. Roark’s home was also destroyed in the flood, and it was at that moment he seriously considered joining the church again. He and his family then relocated to Tennessee.
“I had been away from the church for about 10 years,” Roark said. “What brought me back was the response of the church groups after the devastation caused by Katrina.”
Now 51, and with a career as a real estate investor under his belt and a master’s degree in social work, he joins the Somers community as the church’s newest rector. Previously, he was the associate rector and chief administrative officer at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City. He earned his undergraduate degree in 1988 after studying religion at Yale. In 2010, he took the plunge into studying full time again at Yale Divinity School and became a deacon. By 2013, he was ordained as a priest after studying at Berkeley Divinity School. He was curate at St. Paul’s in Riverside, Conn., prior to working at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City.
Raised Roman Catholic in Rhode Island, Roark was exposed to religion his entire life and always held an interest. After graduating college, he briefly entertained the idea of becoming a monk and moved to New Orleans to open a new house with Covenant House, an organization dedicated to providing shelter to homeless, runaway and at-risk youths.
During his time there, the idea of becoming a monk still crossed his mind, but was quickly pushed aside when he met his future wife, Lori. They have one daughter, Lily, now 18. The couple stayed in New Orleans and Roark earned his master’s degree in social work at Tulane University. He worked in the field for a long time, working with many non-profits, but eventually became interested in and involved in real estate and made a career of it. When Katrina hit and destroyed their home, the family decided to stay in the area and aid in the efforts to rebuild the city.
“We were fortunate to get involved with an Episcopal Church in New Orleans for which the spirituality was very practical and less theoretical,” Roark said.
Seeing a church actually practice what it preached attracted him to the Episcopal faith. He found that the Episcopal Church embodied more of his views and values in terms of accepting women as religious leaders and embracing homosexuality.
“It was through that process that I received a call again to religious life,” he said. “Part of it was getting a sense of God’s presence through all of the people that came down to help.”
Roark was the executive director of the Broadmoor Development Corp. It was launched in 2006 by the Broadmoor Improvement Association to create and execute housing development plans after Katrina. His efforts were documented in a Harvard Business School case study and honored by the White House.
Roark describes his family as a family of socially conscious “doers.” His wife is the middle school dean of students at Birch Wathen Lenox School in Manhattan, and his daughter is in her first year of college, studying international relations and public policy.
Roark said experiencing and seeing that kind of loss has stayed with him and he feels it makes him a better religious leader, as loss is a universal human experience.
“Loss under all of its different faces, is the great issue of this spiritual life,” Roark said. “For me being a priest is about being able to walk people through all phases of their lives, especially those who are going through great suffering.”
His degree in social work and experience working with children and families lend themselves to one of his favorite parts of being a priest, he said, which is getting to know people through counseling.
He was attracted to the church in Somers, he said, because it shares his values.
“I think the vision and values I represent are typical to the Episcopal Church,” he said.
He said the church puts on spectacular community events and he plans to continue to develop that in partnership with the church community. He also said they’re hoping to grow their programs for children and families.
Roark plans to continue to make the church accessible regardless of such things such as sexual orientation and race. He was involved with an interfaith group where he and religious leaders from other faiths met and discussed their ideas and challenges, and feels it has helped him learn and grow and provides him with insight to bring to his parish.
“The problem with some of the national discourse is it dehumanizes one [group] or the other,” he said. “The more discussions we have both in our church and society, the more it humanizes each other and I think that’s important.”
He will never tell his parishioners what their viewpoint should be, he said, and will only provide the tools necessary for them to continue on their own journey.
“Society is becoming more polarized and people are segmenting themselves according to their interests,” Roark said. “Church is one of the crossroads where you get people from many different backgrounds together. Here in the Episcopal Church, we encourage a lot of dialogue. So I think [the church’s] role in society is becoming more important to be a safe place to explore these different topics and keep the dialogue going.”