The Rev. Charles Irving Cummings, prophetic pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church from 1990 until 2011, was born on May 31, 1951 in Ticonderoga, New York. He was the son of the late Charles Robert and Elizabeth (Wathsock) Cummings. From his earliest days, Irv never doubted that he was a beloved child of God. This love was real and made incarnate in his maternal grandfather, Irving Wathsock. Irv often spoke of his grandfather’s kindness, acceptance, and encouragement. Sadly, Irv lost his Grandpa Wathsock when he was only six years old. It wasn’t until his coming out as a gay man in his early 20s, that Irv once again began to feel accepted for who he was.
Growing up in a small farming community, Irv was an active member of the youth group at the Putnam United Presbyterian Church. A difficult relationship with his father exacerbated the painful reality of being a young, closeted male at a time and in a place where coming out would have been unthinkable. Irv later devoted his life to being a friend and mentor to young men as they were coming out.
Irv’s commitment to justice was deeply rooted in the Prophetic tradition of the Bible. As he recalled years later in his farewell sermon at Old Cambridge Baptist Church on May 15, 2011:
Rightly or wrongly, I’ve tried always to follow the model of the Prophet Amos, who, himself, was a farmer. Groomed in the traditions of prophecy, presumably at the knee of his rabbi in the country, or among the country people he had known most of his life, he journeyed to the city and preached so impressively that he wound up in the Bible. He spoke truth to power all over the place. And he eventually had an encounter with the king who told him, not that his prophecies of the destruction of the city and its economic system were untrue. The king knew better than that. But, he told Amos that ‘the people could not bear’ his demands. But, always remember, the demands of that prophecy were not those of Amos—they were God’s demands. Amos was only the messenger. So, having preached the Word of God that was in his heart to the people of the city, Amos returned to the country, and, so far as we know, that’s where he ended his days.
Irv studied at Syracuse University where he graduated in 1974 with a Bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in social work and counseling. Irv then began work at Liberty House in Glens Falls, New York, where he saw how clients with disabling medical conditions could benefit from a model of rehabilitation with limited ongoing professional intervention. His experience at Liberty House helped Irv to recognize that he was called by God to formal ministry.
He enrolled in Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1978. Irv played a significant role in organizing a Gay and Lesbian Seminarians Conference which drew several dozen seminarians, largely from the eastern U.S., to Harvard in November, 1979. Irv received his Master of Divinity degree in 1981 and was ordained in the United Church of Christ the following year. Irv then became a chaplain at the University of Vermont where his gregarious personality made him a good match for working with students. However, Irv left that post to return home to care for his mother after her cancer diagnosis. During this time he was called to the pulpit of the Salisbury Congregational Church in Vermont.
Following his mother’s death, Irv sought a more prominent platform to realize his vision for ministry. This led to him being called to be the pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church back in the familiar environs of Harvard in 1990. As the pastor of an influential church buttressing the south wall of Harvard Yard, Irv was on fire to preach the Word of God in word and in deed. He served as President of the United Ministry at Harvard University. In that capacity, Irv and his ministry colleagues not only spoke truth to power, but stood against the systems of entitlement. He was active in the Jubilee 2000 movement, an international effort to reduce the burden of debt on developing countries, and worked tirelessly on behalf of refugees, immigrants, and the disenfranchised. In September 2000, Irv helped to organize a silent vigil on Harvard Square for two members of the campus community who were victims of hate-fueled violence. At that time Irv told a reporter from The Harvard Crimson that the vigil was also protesting a general "climate that encourages violence.” As he told the crowd, “We need to make a statement that we stand for peace on our streets.”
Irv embodied the role of the fiery prophet, yet he also loved to laugh and have fun. One year, following the annual blessing of the animals at Old Cambridge Baptist, Irv had the chance to demonstrate his dairyman’s skills. In full liturgical garb, Irv showed the city folk how to milk a cow. His friends in Cambridge remember well his memorable celebrations of the Twelfth Night and the birthday of Robert Burns with their elaborate, holiday-themed menus and abundant libations
Even as he was pastor of a large, highly educated, urban congregation Irv spent as much time as he could at the family farm in upstate New York, Putnam Station. Despite his feelings of “otherness” from earliest childhood, Irv was a proud son of Putnam. His greatest achievement in his hometown was the establishment of The Founder’s Fund to benefit students from the Putnam Central School upon their graduation from Ticonderoga High School. In loving tribute to his mother, who had worked at the school until she became ill, Irv recruited an advisory board of local residents, and through his extensive network of friends in Cambridge and elsewhere, raised an astonishing $500,000 in just under two years. Since inception, the Putnam Founder’s Fund has awarded 230 scholarships worth more than $215,000.
Irv’s hospitality was genuine and reflected the Highland traditions of his forbearers. He served as the Northeast Commissioner of the Clan Cumming Society and represented the Clan at numerous regional gatherings. He also traveled to Scotland where he toured the Highlands and enjoyed the hospitality of the late Sir William Gordon Cumming, 6th Baronet and Chief of Clan Cumming.
Irv retired from Old Cambridge Baptist Church in 2011 and returned to live in Putnam Station. He found a spiritual home at St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Middlebury, Vermont, where got involved on many levels—singing in choir, occasional preaching, organizing Blue Christmas services, serving on stewardship and outreach committees.
Even though he suffered chronic health problems in his later years, Irv stayed actively engaged with his community, family and friends until his death on October 2, 2020.
Irv is remembered on the History page of the Old Cambridge Baptist website as:
A progressive Christian in the prophetic tradition, his sermons often referenced “empire” then and now, in terms of allegiance to a higher authority than Rome or the current U.S. government. Also committed to social justice, especially gay rights, environmental justice, antiwar actions such as participation in Veterans for Peace, the arts, and an embrace of all faiths (including Muslim) as allies, his worship services and other activities displayed a creative and sometimes playful approach. But his sermons were deeply historical and intellectual. An out gay man, he was a founding member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists in 1993 and supported the gay marriage equality campaign.
(This biographical statement was adapted by Mark Bowman from Irv Cummings’ obituary published by his family at: https://www.wilcoxandreganfuneralhome.com/obituaries/Rev-Charles-Irving-Cummings?obId=18514567)
Biography Date: October 2020