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When the Rev. Harvey R. Buer returned from his "mini sabbatical" last month, his congregation had a surprise for him.

"After the service, there was a little gathering with some thank you's," the Rev. Buer said. "And then they presented me with a gift - a couple weeks vacation to Mexico."For 10 years, the Rev. Buer has served as pastor of the Holladay United Church of Christ, 2631 E. Murray-Holladay Road. The surprise celebration reflected the love, respect and appreciation the congregation feels for him.

One member, Ruby Hammel, said of the Rev. Buer, "He has been an absolute boon to our congregation. He truly cares about people and has so much understanding of their feelings."

The Rev. Buer is pleased with the progress made during the last 10 years. "One significant change has been the influx of young families. This was aided and abetted by starting a preschool here. People find the preschool and then some of them wander into the church."

He said when children reach 4 or 5 years of age, parents begin thinking seriously about a church that has something to offer them.

And the Rev. Buer believes the Holladay United Church of Christ provides it.

"I am a pastor who loves children and coaxes parents to insist on quality nurturing in faith," he said.

The church provides music, art, dance and drama programs for children. Each Sunday, a few minutes of the sermon is directed to them, and instruction includes classic stories linked with those in the Bible.

The multi-faceted program doesn't exclude the teenagers.

"They not only have social things, but they wrestle with issues," he said.

For young and old alike, the Rev. Buer's desire is to facilitate the spirit.

"Key to that is a preparedness which insists on the basic elements of worship, allows for spontaneity, encourages quality music and chooses clear, concise, relevant language which speaks priestly and prophetically," he explained.

He preaches "out of the Biblical text and the common life of the congregation, striving to paint vivid word pictures which draw the listeners into the drama, both intellectually and emotionally."

The Rev. Buer explained that, because we live in a disjointed world, many peoples and structures are "out of joint."

"Jesus' parables often flip the normal way of thinking upside down," he said, adding that they reflect a new and far more accurate perspective to life. "Part of my job is to raise questions or paint pictures that are different from the accepted way," he said.

The Rev. Buer said there is considerable diversity of thought among the congregation. Some feel the church should say something about peace in the world, while others prefer to concentrate on peacemaking in the home. Some are anti-abortion, while others are pro-choice.

"My role is to not necessarily to take a position, but to help people think. I help them see both sides of the issue."

The Rev. Buer gets great satisfaction from working closely with his congregation. "There is nothing more therapeutic for me in the midst of hurt or dismay than the congregation's touch, counsel, and forgiveness. When I receive congregational caring, I can demonstrate a greater love for God, self and neighbor."

And that love is reciprocal. Members find solace though a close personal relationship they have with the Rev. Buer.

"A lot of people who are hurting in some way come to me. They might be going through divorce, problems with children, or are single and lonely. And sometimes they are people who are wrestling with their own sexuality.

"I try to help people find meaning in the joy and sorrow of life, hope in the face of death, love despite hate, forgiveness in the middle of injustice, peace and stability through turmoil and paradox."

Though he often goes the extra mile, the Rev. Buer realizes he can't do everything himself. His associate, the Rev. Galen Russell, has responsibility to develop the youth and children's programs. There are also lay members who help with the teaching, fund-raising and outreach programs.

He said the church's outreach program takes two forms:

One tries to influence the social structures of society, such as writing congressmen and being aware of legislative issues. "In fact, we have several candidates coming here during the next few weeks to speak to us."

The other is more service-oriented programs, such as involvement with the Crossroads Urban Center, Utahns Against Hunger, Family Support Shelter and others.

Though it is involved in such causes, the Rev. Buer said the church tries not to burden its members with too much structure.

"Here we stress freedom and grace," the Rev. Buer said. "You are accepted because you are a person."

He remembers growing up in a church where he sensed a feeling of belonging. He was given responsibilities and leadership roles, and felt an overwhelming portion of God's love.

"I think it is imperative that I do everything I can to help people experience that love - and then share it."