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Much of what I know about ecumenism I learned in a used furniture store.
My first pastoral call was to a Reformed Church in America congregation in upstate New York. At that time there were few opportunities in west Michigan for women in the aspects of ministry to which I felt called: preaching and leadership.
I began to widen my search and contacted a minister in charge of helping match ministers with congregations. He gave me this advice: apply in upstate New York where there were many churches in small villages where, when a family member dies, people reach out to the minister in the church on the village square to “do” the funeral. In those situations, he said, the minister is able to offer very basic and important ministry that impacts people at the point of emotional and spiritual need. It was sage and valuable advice.
Upon arriving at the church, I was assigned a classis mentor who immediately invited me to an ecumenical clergy group which met every week to discuss the lectionary passages for the following Sunday. The group included Lutheran, Catholic, Free Methodist, Episcopal and RCA ministers. At that time we rotated between our churches but eventually decided to relocate our weekly meeting to a village shop which was a combination delicatessen and used furniture store.
This group taught me so much. The Roman Catholic was from the next village over and was not your typical priest (unlike the priest from my own village who I never met in ten years of ministry there). He would humbly wonder why the lectionary selections for the Catholic church were different from those of the Protestants (and he could guess why). He invited one of the female members of the group to preach at his church for one of our joint services because he wanted his congregation to experience a woman preacher. He and I co-officiated weddings, and he told all of us that we were always welcome to receive Communion in his church.
The Episcopal priest was a wonderful storyteller. At our meeting during one Holy Week he told us about making a hospital visit to a seriously ill man. He said he had laid his hand upon the man and prayed for his complete healing. As he prayed, the man breathed his last breath. With tears in his eyes, this Episcopal priest reflected that perhaps that was what Easter was all about.
The two Lutheran pastors I served alongside were the ones with whom I interfaced the most. We alternated Reformation Day services between us, had a joint youth group, and shared other village ministries. Our congregation welcomed their congregation when their church experienced a severe fire after a torrential flood, helping them and other village residents with government paperwork and household items.
One of the ministers told the story in the clergy group of visiting a death camp in Germany and discovering that a Reformed pastor had preached daily out the window of his cell to the other prisoners, encouraging them to never give up, even though he himself was beaten daily for his preaching. When she and I met up again years later at the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Churchwide Assembly (the equivalent of the RCA General Synod), she reminded me of the story of that pastor. He had deeply impacted her life, she said.
The Free Methodist minister was the one who arrived at the store on the morning of September 11, 2001, and told us what he had just heard on the news. We looked at each other in shock and dismay and quickly disbanded for our homes. That moment of shared grief impacted me deeply.
As we sat at a used dinette set in that deli/furniture shop each Tuesday morning, my life was enriched in ways I can never fully convey. This experience taught me that none of us fully has “a corner on the truth.” I was teased by the others when I would say, “I’m not preaching from the lectionary on Sunday” or “I wish Jesus hadn’t said that” when an uncomfortable gospel passage was up for discussion. But I always knew that the others had my back, and I had theirs.
I accepted a call to a church in a larger city after ten years of ministry at that village church. In the subsequent fifteen years my ecumenical involvement has widened and been reshaped through many other opportunities to gather with people of other churches and other faiths both in the United States and worldwide.
I have learned much about what ecumenism is, and also what it is not. It is not trying to talk others into my own point of view and faith perspective, but rather a respectful sharing of one another’s viewpoints and ways of seeing the world in different contexts. It is about being willing to be challenged when those viewpoints cause me to rethink my own perspective. Ecumenism is about being willing to be open to what the Spirit may be saying to me that forces me to admit I may be wrong.
And much of that I learned in a used furniture shop.