Photography by Joel Benjamin
Burns Stanfield is a man of God with a musical soul. For almost 23 years, Burns is the rock that the Fourth Presbyterian Church has built upon and each year it becomes a little stronger. Always understanding he wanted to serve others, his career path took an unexpected turn. Burns was ready to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, when he received a call from his friend Charlie Chesterman to join his band Scruffy the Cat. “I told my ordination sponsoring committee about the opportunity and they said, ‘You should do that; it will make you a better minister.’ They were right.”
Burns accepted the invitation and put his divine calling on hold. Resembling a young John Cusack – think Sixteen Candles and Say Anything, Burns played keyboards in the alternative pop/rock band and toured and recorded for two years beginning in 1988. Big in the college scene, Scruffy the Cat played all the Boston hot spots. “We played everywhere in Boston; The Chanel, The Paradise, TT the Bear, even The Rat. Scruffy was a great band. Along the way, we got to play with Peter Buck (of REM), Paula Abdul, and Hootie and the Blowfish. Joey Ramone came to watch us in NY.”
In 1990, Scruffy disbanded and Burns returned to his calling, married his wife Lorraine and settled in Dorchester. “In the spring of 1991, I started as pastor at the church (Fourth Presbyterian) and have never left.” The neighborhood of South Boston has benefited from Burns’ dedication, devotion and commitment to his faith and the community. His warmth and kindness radiates from within – in Burns’ presence, you can’t help but be inspired. Kathy Encarnacao is a dance teacher and register at the church who works with Burns. “Burns is an incredibly welcoming presence at the Fourth Church. Whether he is preaching at Sunday service,directing a theater production with over fifty children, or advocating for the families of South Boston, he does so with a joy and enthusiasm that spreads throughout the church community and beyond,” said Kathy.
Not in Kansas anymore
Burns was born in Kansas, grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, then left the midwest for the greener pastures of New Jersey to attend Princeton University. After graduation, he spent a year in Buckhorn, Kentucky (Appalachian region) working with troubled kids. “That year confirmed the direction I wanted to go in life which was working with kids and a life of service to others,” said Burns.
He became a student at the Divinity School at Harvard University – his future wife Lorraine was in medical school there. Lorraine is now a primary care physician at Dorchester House Health Center in Fields Corner. They have three children, Liz, 20, sophomore at Brown, Nathan, 18, graduating from Milton academy and attending Washington U. in St. Louis next fall – their youngest, Grace, 15, is a sophomore at Milton Academy. After living in Dorchester for a decade and a half, they moved to Milton. “Don’t hold that against me. We couldn’t afford what we could find in Southie!” admits Burns.
Interesting side fact: Burns was a member of a mime troop in college. He appeared on BBC with his troop while performing in a festival.
Since, May of 1991, Burns and the Fourth Presbyterian Church have been woven into the community of South Boston making it stronger. “We try to be responsive to the needs of the community as best we can,” said Burns. When first becoming pastor, Burns set out to become involved in the neighborhood. “The first community meeting I ever attended in Southie was SOBAD (South Boston Against Drugs) and it was led by the amazing Helen Allix, who is such an inspiring mentor to me.” For more than a decade, the ministry of the church has such programs ranging from their wildly popular children’s theater, to the food pantry, to recovery groups.
The children’s theater program began in 1992 and Burns directs upwards of 70 children in each play, which is no easy feat. His love of music and his patience helps create magical performances. Rene Martin who has worked directly with Burns at the theater as a choreographer for the past ten years says watching Burns interact with the kids is amazing. “When he plays the keyboard, or shares his hidden talent of mime, children are literally drawn to him like the Pied Piper,” says Rene.
The scoop on the great things happening at Fourth Presbyterian Church:
- Sunday worship is filled with uplifting music
- Sunday School
- Bible Studies
- Pot luck lunches
- Mens bowling league
- after school music and art classes
- big theater workshops for children and youth
- a food pantry serving 200 families every two weeks
- a Thursday night youth center at MEM
- a Friday night youth group at the church
- a seniors club
- English classes
- recovery groups
- a big summer day program (ages 4-13) and a summer evening center for youth
- community organizing and trainings to equip citizens and work on issues like health care, education, and civic engagement
- and most importantly lots of love and fellowship.
Q&A with Burns:
What do you hope people to will take away from you and Fourth Presbyterian Church?
I hope people can catch even a glimpse of God’s big love in the ministry of Fourth Church. We hope to be a part of that love, and my hope is that we can faithfully reflect and share that love with others.
What is your life’s motto?
Love God and Love Neighbor, I’d have to say.
Best advice you ever received? Don’t stop making music. (From a wonderful Brahmin lady in a Back Bay church who knew I was getting ready to be ordained as a pastor.) Burns continues to write music, perform and record. Family Prayers is a CD of original songs, and a follow-up is on the way.
Tell us about the children’s theatre musical and when we can see the shows?
The children’s theatre is one of our most popular programs and there are some amazingly talented kids in it. Next weekend, on April 11th and 12th – forty children will perform “The Little Mermaid” at 7pm each night. On Sunday morning, April 13th, adults and teens present our Passion Play in our 10:30 worship, incorporating songs from Godspell, Superstar and more. There is a lot activity this month at the church.”
Charlie Chesterman, Founder of Scruffy the Cat, passed away last year after battling a long illness. He lived in Dorchester with his wife and two children Woolsely and Clementine. “Woolsey is performing in the Little Mermaid and is very good. He’s got a lot of energy like his dad had,” said Burns with a smile.
On May 3rd, Fourth Fest will take place from 2:30-5:30 at Laugh Boston – 425 Summer Street. There will be, of course, live music including the Fourth Presbyterian Church Gospel Choir. Matias the Magician and the Children’s Theatre will perform too. Lincoln and Lucky’s will be providing the food and there will be live and silent auction items. Tickets are $50. “We are celebrating the 20th year of our Summer Meals Program. In these two decades we have served over 100,000 free meals to the community. We plan to serve 7000 more this summer. That’s what we are raising money for and it will be fun! Rev. Liz Walker is the MC. Tom Tinlin
– Former Character of the Month – is the auctioneer.”
Burns Stanfield is living by his life’s motto to love God and love others. His dedication to his ministry, and the people of South Boston serves to awaken the goodness in all of us and inspires us to pay it forward. Come show your support for an amazing man and incredible institution nestled in the heart of our community.