Glen Cove has more than a dozen places of worship, reflecting the rich diversity of the city’s population. In a place with large churches such as St. Patrick’s and the Church of St. Rocco in busy areas of the city, it can be easy to miss the humble, non-denominational Glen Cove Christian Church on Walnut Road.
Even easier to miss is the adjoining house where the Rev. Jim Phegley lived with his wife, Sarah Ann. Phegley served the church and the community for more than 30 years, retiring at age 65 earlier this month. He gave his final sermon on July 7, and he and his wife have moved to Connecticut to be closer to their children and grandchildren. His retirement marked the end of an era of dedication to the betterment of his community that extended far beyond religion.
Phegley was born on Aug. 31, 1953, to James and Norma Phegley in Flint, Mich., and had two brothers and a sister. He described Flint as a great place to grow up, with General Motors flourishing through the late 1950s and ’60s, contributing to a booming local economy, and with safe neighborhoods where children walked anywhere they wanted.
His family wasn’t particularly religious, but Jim’s connection with Christianity strengthened after he was invited to attend a church service with a fifth-grade friend, and later, during the second year of his four-year stint in the Navy, in 1972.
While stationed in Pensacola, Fla., he heard a sermon at a church just outside the Navy base. Listening to the minister’s words, he realized that that was what he wanted to do with his life. Before beginning his life in ministry, however, he spent time on a Navy base in Puerto Rico, where he met his future wife, Sarah Ann Robison.
Robison’s parents were missionaries, and she spent most of her childhood in Brazil before they moved to the U.S., when she was 15. After finishing high school, she attended seminary school and her parents moved to Puerto Rico. She was visiting them when she was introduced to Phegley by her brother, David, who served in the Navy with him. Although she had promised herself she would never date a sailor, she was attracted to his kind and genuine nature. Within six months, the two were engaged.
After his service ended in 1975, Phegley returned to Flint with Sarah Ann, where they lived for five years while he studied nursing at a local community college. He transferred to Tennessee Bible College in 1980, where he earned a dual degree in ministry and nursing.
The Phegleys’ lives and religious careers took a significant step forward a few years later, when friends they had met in Puerto Rico asked them to come to Costa Rica to help with a missionary project. Although Jim had only minimal knowledge of Spanish, he and Sarah Ann accepted.
Over the course of two years in Costa Rica, the Phegleys spent time in the cities of San Jose and Liberia. Jim put his nursing degree to good use, providing health care to the sick and injured, many of whom had no other access to care. He came to believe that he was doing God’s work by helping those who needed it most. “I just felt very rewarded and very close to God,” he said, “because most of my time was spent doing what I felt he wanted me to do.”
Even when the Phegleys returned to the U.S. in 1984, Jim continued his service to the Hispanic community. After spending a year as a youth minister in Flint, he was called on by his ministry to start a Spanish-speaking congregation on the North Shore of Long Island, where the Hispanic population was growing. He moved to Glen Cove in 1985 to start La Iglesia Cristiana and teach English at Finley Middle School and literacy at Landing Elementary.
Jim became the leader of the English-speaking congregation at the Glen Cove Christian Church in 1987, which consisted of 32 people. He held that position until his retirement, helping the church population grow to over 200.
Resident Herman Gugig had attended many of Phegley’s services over the past two years. Gugig said he does not consider himself a devout Christian, but was drawn by Phegley’s personality, his leadership and his ability to relate to people on a personal level.
“He speaks from the heart — he talks about his own relationships,” Gugig explained. “He was just a good human being.” Then he added, “He touched me. He was for real.”
Outside of his religious work, Phegley was active in the local volunteering community. In 1996 he helped create the North Shore Sheltering Program, which houses the area’s homeless population in several locations during the colder months. He was the program’s first president, and served on the board for 20 years.
Cantor Gustavo Gitlin, of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove, the program’s current president, said that Phegley inspired him to do more for his community, both as a clergyman and as a citizen. Phegley was an exceptional leader, Gitlin said, always willing to be honest, and to go out of his way to make the lives of those around him better, while teaching others to do the same.
“On one hand, we’re losing an amazing leader and a hard worker and an inspiration,” Gitlin said. “On the other hand, I think that in the community, he left a big mark.”
Phegley was a team leader at the Mellilo Center of Mental Health, engaging people with mental illnesses and helping them find treatment and housing. He was also the board chairman of La Fuerza Unida, which helps improve the lives of Hispanic-American North Shore residents with educational and social programs.
Now, having served Glen Cove for more than three decades, Phegley has decided that retirement is what is best for him and his family. He believes it is time for a younger minister to take over, and now that Sarah Ann has retired as well, the two want to be closer to their children, Mark and Rachel, and their five grandchildren. Mark and Rachel both work at the University of Connecticut, where Mark is the supervisor of logistics and Rachel is the administrative director of the Human Rights Department.
Despite all he has done for the Glen Cove community and beyond, Phegley remains humble. His work has always been about helping others, not taking credit for doing so or receiving accolades. Asked what he hoped people would learn from his efforts, he said, “The most important part of life is relationships. Unfortunately, because we live in such an affluent area, I think people miss that sometimes. The relationship with church, the relationship with homeless people in the shelter, the relationship with mentally ill people at the Mellilo Center, the people I work with, it’s always relationships. That’s what makes life worth living.”