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The Rev. James Rice, new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton, to be installed Sept. 29

  • The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice answered the call in June and will be installed on September 29. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice answered the call in June and will be installed on September 29.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice answered the call in June and will be installed on September 29. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice answered the call in June and will be installed on September 29.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice, a retired chaplain, answered the call to be the new pastor at the church in June and will be installed on September 29. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice, a retired chaplain, answered the call to be the new pastor at the church in June and will be installed on September 29.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Rev. James Rice, new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton, cans apple jelly in the church kitchen recently in preparation for the Christmas bazaar. <br/>At home at the pulpit and the kitchen <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The Rev. James Rice, new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton, cans apple jelly in the church kitchen recently in preparation for the Christmas bazaar.
    At home at the pulpit and the kitchen
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice answered the call in June and will be installed on September 29. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice answered the call in June and will be installed on September 29. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The Rev. James Rice is the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton. Rice, a retired chaplain, answered the call to be the new pastor at the church in June and will be installed on September 29. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The Rev. James Rice, new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Easthampton, cans apple jelly in the church kitchen recently in preparation for the Christmas bazaar. <br/>At home at the pulpit and the kitchen <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

And he hasn’t stopped nursing; though he is now retired from the military, he works a few overnight shifts each week at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

“I’m a worker-priest,” said Rice, 56, of Florence.

He works as a telemetry cardiac nurse from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. two nights a week, which means he sleeps the whole next day. “So when you work two nights, it messes you up for four days,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but both my employers understand it.”

Richard Babyak of Southampton, president of Trinity Lutheran Church, said the congregation is thrilled to officially install Rice as pastor Sept. 29. He said Rice’s decades of experience in the military and medicine mean he has a wealth of knowledge and a unique insight to share with the congregation.

“We’re extremely excited,” Babyak said. “We think this could be the turnaround for the church.”

Babyak said that in recent years regular attendance at services at the 2 Clark St. church has dropped from about 70 to around 40 people. The congregation and its former pastor, Rev. James S. Weisse, came to the agreement in June 2012 that he should resign after church members didn’t like his sermon topics, Babyak said.

Rice and his wife, Beth, had been very involved with the church since they moved to Florence in 2011, so Babyak said they asked him to serve as interim preacher while they searched for a permanent replacement. They didn’t have to look far, he said, and offered Rice the job in June.

Rice said that he has flown around the world in the military and preached in Pennsylvania coal mining country and on the Jersey Shore. “But I feel much more comfortable in the old milltown kind of place that is Easthampton,” he said.

“People talk to you honestly. They have a real concern for their neighbors.”

Nursing and preaching

In a telephone interview, Rice said he knew growing up in Dalton that he had “the desire for ministry.”

But when he graduated from Waconah Regional High School, he immediately joined the Navy and became a combat medic serving with the Marine Corps for 4 years.

He returned to western Massachusetts, met and married Beth Rice in 1981, and got his nursing degree from Greenfield Community College in 1982. He worked in area hospitals and nursing homes while earning his bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Massachusetts in 1986.

During that time he was a Navy reservist, and he was called to serve in Operation Desert Storm in 1989 and 1990. Instead of nursing as he had before, he was in charge of supplying all the military hospitals in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with blood for transfusions. “I was basically a truck driver,” he said.

In 1991, he switched to become an Air Force reservist and worked as a flight nurse on the armed medical evacuation squad out of Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. The job was exciting and different — the team would fly around the world, transporting any wounded or sick military or State Department personnel who needed to be treated in the U.S. He worked a similar job in California until his eyesight became too poor to pass a flight physical — an Air Force requirement, even though he was not a pilot. It was 1998 and he decided it was finally time to retire and answer his calling to be a pastor.

He graduated from a seminary in Indiana in 2002 and got his first job as a pastor at a church in Johnstown, Pa., which he described as the heart of coal mining and steel plant country. A few years later, he moved to work at a church in Toms River on the New Jersey shore.

Serving in Iraq

Rice joined the New Jersey National Guard in 2006, and in 2008 he was deployed to Iraq to serve as a chaplain for National Guard soldiers in combat there.

“The benefit of being a chaplain with a long military history is that I could already walk the walk and talk the talk there,” he said. That meant the soldiers felt more comfortable around him, so he could help them adjust to war better, he said.

“When any soldier goes into a combat zone, they have to get their mind into what we call battle mind. ... You have to get into it to be safe and successful,” he said. That includes staying vigilant and being lethally armed at all times, which can wear on soldiers, he said.

“I would be moving among the soldiers, seeing who has the stare, the grimace, and just have a cup of coffee and talk with them,” he said.

He also said he tried to help soldiers deal with being away from their families. While soldiers 50 years ago got letters from home weeks later, now soldiers get constant updates by phone and the Internet. “It means they bring all the worries of home with them into battle,” he said.

After a year he returned home to New Jersey and his congregation in 2009. But in 2011 he got the call to redeploy to Iraq as chaplain with a helicopter battalion.

He and his wife decided it would be best to move their home to Florence so Beth Rice would be closer to family and friends while her husband was overseas. They moved, and then a few months before he was scheduled to leave, the deployment was called off.

Soon, he found work at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. Rice retired from military duty in June, after 36 years of service.

He admits that his two current jobs will be challenging to manage, but he believes they are compatible.

“There is a certain care for the neighbor that is common,” he said. “Nurses care for their neighbors by doing things, giving them medication or suggesting ways they can deal with their diabetes. Pastors, our care for our neighbors is sometimes just listening. It’s taken me some time to realize you don’t always have to try to solve their problem, mostly they just want you to listen.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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