The Rev. Robert “Bob” Merrill Hemstreet died on February 11, 2015, at the age of 84.
Bob was born to Albert B. Hemstreet and Beatrice Merrill Hemstreet on May 25, 1930 in Rochester, N.Y. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from New York University in 1952. Bob was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953, and he served until 1955, at which point he was honorably discharged. He went on to study at Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and graduated with a Master of Divinity in 1964.
Rev. Hemstreet was ordained by the First Unitarian Church at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1964, and served as minister to the First Unitarian Church from 1964 to 1968. From 1969 to 1972, he served as Minister-at-Large to the Greater Wilmington Council of Unitarian Universalist Societies, ministering half time to fellowships in West Chester, PA and Newark, DE. He next served as full time minister to the Unitarian Fellowship of Newark, DE from 1972 to 1975, and as weekend minister in York, PA from 1973 to 1974. He went on to serve as minister to the UU Church of Flushing, NY from 1976 to 1995; and was elected Minister Emeritus from UU Church of Flushing in 1999, a title he held until his death.
Rev. Hemstreet was devoted to, and active within, the denomination. Following the 1961 merger of Unitarianism and Universalism, he pushed for the adoption of a set of purposes and principles as a unifying guide that all congregations could affirm and promote. Throughout his ministry, he engaged with the faith in varying capacities - he served as president of three Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association chapters (St. Lawrence, Joseph Priestley and Metro NY); board member of the New York Metro District; trustee of the St. Lawrence Foundation for Theological Education from 1979 to 1985; member of a Flushing interfaith clergy group; and founder and elected president of Unitarian Universalists for Socialism in 1988. Bob strongly identified as a UU Humanist, and wrote extensively about Humanism as a religious path. He famously created the Thanksgiving Cider and Cornbread Communion, a service that has been widely anthologized and is now an annual feature of many UU congregations across the continent. He loved Star Island, and was an enthusiastic participant in the annual Institute for Religion in an Age of Science conference.
Dedicated to bettering his community and the world at large, Bob was very active in the IARF. He held the position of IARF American Chapter President from 1981 to 1984, and traveled to Europe several times for IARF related events. Bob got his start in the anti-racist and socialist movements in his mid-teens, as a follower of C.L.R. James, an activist and author from Trinidad and Tobago. He remained an activist on behalf of the disenfranchised his whole life. When the call went out to go down to Selma, Alabama after James Reeb's murder, Bob knew he needed to go. A former congregant of Bob’s felt it was so important for him to travel to Selma that he emptied the cash register in the store he owned, and gave Bob the $300. Bob answered the call.
Closer to home, he co-founded the original Queens Amnesty International chapter during the late 1970's; and served on the boards of the Queens Historical Society, the Queens Council of Churches, and the Queens Network for Intergroup Harmony.
Bob was introduced quite early in life to religion and ministry. As a child, he was mentored by an Episcopal priest, and served as an altar boy in the Episcopal Church; additionally, Bob’s grandfather served as an Episcopal priest to the deaf. Bob’s childhood home was located in Canton, NY near St. Lawrence University Theological School, and his grandmother rented out rooms to theology students. Ever curious and eager to learn, Bob spent many nights with his ear pressed against a bedroom door, intently listening to the students’ theological discussions.
Bob’s interests were deeply embedded in his work; he found joy within social justice work and preaching. Very much the intellectual, he was an avid article clipper, and appreciated reading, writing and music. His loving wife, Wendy, remembers Bob as one who was “always searching,” even in his final days.
He is survived by his wife, Wendy Moscow, and his stepsister, Gail Fiorelli.
A memorial service will be held on March 21st at 4:00 P.M., at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens, in Flushing, NY.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, 689 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139-3302 (http://www.uusc.org/
Notes of condolences may be sent to Wendy Moscow, 25-18 Union Street, #5E, Flushing, NY 11354.