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Church leaders celebrate unity, urge more common action

Dialogue Bread Altar
Breads from around world brought to the table

People from various countries and congregations processed and placed bread on a table as a visual reminder of the brokenness and unity of those attending the Nov. 6 Fig Tree Faith in Action Dialogue at the Cathedral of St. John.

Editor Mary Stamp said the processional song, “One Bread, One Body,” sung in many churches, is a reminder of “our common faith” and of the divisions that remain over communion or Eucharist.

“Around the table, we face our hunger for unity.  We are fed to feed others with food and to nourish justice and peace,” she said, introducing panelists who shared insights on challenges and opportunities for ecumenism today.

Dialogue Panel
Bishop WaltonMize, Bishop William Skylstad, Bishop James Waggoner, Bishop Martin Wells, and Alice Woldt form dialogue panel.

Bishop Walton Mize of Christ Holy Sanctified Church likened the camaraderie of a family gathering for a meal to church life. 

“Our church eats together often,” he said.  “It’s hard to focus on the bad things when we sit, eat and talk with people about spiritual bread.  I have broken bread with many people of many different faiths.” 

He told of eating together being a way to break through divisions.  When he first came to Spokane, a woman asked him how she could meet a black person. “What are you doing for lunch tomorrow?” he asked.  “We broke bread and shared,” Bishop Mize said.

Bishop William Skylstad of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane said the gathering “inspires, encourages, witnesses to and challenges us to be what we should be according to Jesus’ prayer that we may be one.” 

In more than 40 years of dialogue since Vatican II, he said the Catholic Church has taken the prayer seriously. 

“We see strong relationships here as bishops and executives have been breaking bread Wednesday mornings for breakfast for 45 years. I hope it continues many years,” he said.  “Pope John Paul II called for relationships and dialogue.  Although there aren’t always results, we are to continue to meet, talk and be in relationship.”

He quoted Catholic Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor who said recently:  “We are on the road to ecumenism and there is no exit.” 

“Events like this dialogue, the Fig Tree, our prayer and our common action and advocacy speak of unity,” the bishop said.  “They are part of the search for unity for which Jesus prayed.  We look to the future with hope, encouraged with our support of one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus and the gift of faith we are.”

Bishop James Waggoner, Jr., of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane enjoys open forums and “times for questions, dialogue, listening and learning to be connected with one another because we can do much more together than we can do separately.” 

He knows gathering for dialogue is contrary to the conflict and separation that plague church and culture:  “Speaking of my faith, my truth, my church, my ministry is contrary to the reality that it is our faith, our truth, our church and our ministries.

“We have our unique holy histories and our differences, but how good it is to come together in a spirit of appreciation, not just tolerance, so we can move on with our common mission of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, giving hope to the hopeless and being light in darkness,” he said.  “If my neighbor is hungry, it’s a spiritual issue for me.

“God’s agenda is bigger than any of our particularities.  God’s hope brings hope, health and new life,” he said.  “We have done much ecumenically. There is more to do. We are called to do more.”

Panel members
Bishop Waggoner, Bishop Wells, and Alice Woldt

Bishop Martin Wells of the Eastern Washington Idaho Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) expressed gratitude that “The Fig Tree helps us be a better, more connected church, introducing us to one another.”  He also expressed gratitude for “Octet” friends and colleagues who support each other in a personal way at breakfast each week in ecumenism of the table. 

“We are companions.  In French that means “with bread.”  For us, it’s with toast, English muffins and oatmeal and an occasional slice of pie,” he said.  “Ecumenism begins in relationships, in stories that build trust.  We are moving the same direction in different institutions.”

He told of ELCA’s ecumenical commitment, pronouncing in 1981 that “we are called by Jesus to express unity visibly and structurally.  We have been called to move to deeper stages from disunity to cooperation to bilateral relations to unity, and we are called by the World Council of Churches to be in relationships of full communion with mutual recognition of baptism, Eucharist and ministry.”

The ELCA has relationships of full communion with Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Moravians, the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church.  In 2009, it will vote on full communion with United Methodists.

“After 50 years of talking in parallel rounds of dialogue we look forward to the Joint Declaration on Justification with the Roman Catholics and a joint statement on Eucharist,” he said 

“The ELCA sees ecumenism as a sign of hope in a divided and hurting world, a sign of respect in the human family.  The Fig Tree is a partner in sharing expectations and calls us to deeper respect,” Bishop Wells said.

Alice Woldt, transitional executive director of the Washington Association of Churches, has seen changes in the ecumenical movement in recent decades since its heyday in the 20th century.  She invites Spokane to celebrate the 101st Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January. 

“In recent decades, we have seen new division among Christian churches, reflected in ecumenical opportunities people have not caught and challenges to ecumenical agencies like the Washington Association of Churches,” said Alice who has worked 20 years in ecumenical agencies.

“Some invested in faith-and-order issues that few people in the pews or clergy knew much about,” she said.  “It’s too bad if we leave the ecumenical movement out of our lives and have divided church.  It’s not the model we should have.” 

Woldt said church and ecumenical structures have been affected by social, economic, technological and political changes. As some welcome change and others resist it, she said there are fissures in churches between those who believe in absolute truth and those who believe truths change over time.  Many do not even believe in the doctrines ecumenical leaders discuss as divisive. 

dialogue participants
Fig Tree Outreach Coordinator, Ann Marie Martin

“The gift of unity can’t work when we stay in our silos and use the business model based on scarcity, rather than the model of faith that God is going to provide,” said Alice, noting that the WAC is discerning what God is calling the 33-year-old ecumenical organization to do today.

Plans to transform it include expanding its membership beyond denominations to include the church community in different forms of ministry. 

“We can be a connector to network and replicate good models of ministry across the state,” she said.  “We will continue to do public witness to advocate for the poor as we have done through the WAC’s history.

“Ecumenical work builds bridges by focusing on common values rooted in the Gospel to build common ground and relationships in an era when we again see divisions and fissures in churches and communities.

“We are called to be one.  If we can model what it is to be one with God in one faith and one baptism, we will be better,” Woldt said.

After participants talked at their tables, several offered some comments:

Bonnie Douglas said Diakonia, an interfaith group in Coeur d’Alene, shares prayers of the different faith traditions, enabling participants “to see where our faiths not only are parallel but intersect.”

Agnes Broncheau, a descendant of Chief Joseph, expressed appreciation for interfaith dialogue and said she prays for everyone in the four nations of the world—red, yellow, black and white.  She has attended, respected and been influenced by many churches.

David Campbell of VOICES called for common action through the Spokane Alliance by the faith community on tax reform in the state, where the poor pay 17.6 percent of their income and the rich pay 3.4 percent.

Suzanne Harris, who attends St. Aloysius and the Cathedral of St. John, said most lay people focus on similarities and differences that affect them. She recognizes the challenge of bringing together people of different faith traditions to talk of ecumenical spirituality, to respect differences and to find common ground.

Sara Weaver of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ asked, “Who is missing?” She is concerned about obstacles to relationships with churches of different races arising from her church’s decision to be open and affirming. She hopes it’s possible “to bridge differences that seem like chasms.”

Joe Kramarz of Interfaith Hospitality Network of Spokane, which houses homeless families in 12 churches, said how important their group thinks the “interfaith” part of their name is.

The Rev. Dale Cockrum, Inland United Methodist district superintendent expressed appreciation for the move to respect one another in community and have more dialogue:  “While organizational unity is not possible, we can respect one another’s traditions and connect across the lines through involvement in such efforts as Stephen Ministry of lay pastoral care; the Walk to Emmaus and organizations that do hands-on service to make a difference in people’s lives.  In such events we have opportunities to build relationships with different churches and gradually walls come down.”

Tito Williams-Tinajero, who works with web and new technologies, wondered if the church and ecumenical organizations are effectively using “the powerful networking tools of the web, including blogs and YouTube.” 

Mary Stamp told of developing the Fig Tree model of peace-and-justice journalism in partnership with the WAC to spread communication statewide and nationally.

Yvonne Lopez Morton of St. Ann’s Church said her church enjoys singing in different languages and celebrating Spanish and African Masses:  “We need to remember there are many voices, faces and traditions in our faith communities.”

Sister Rose Theresa Costello, SNJM, who volunteers with Our Place, finds “beautiful examples of people of all faiths coming together to meet the needs of people.  As more and more people come for free help, it’s an example of what we need.”  She also hopes churches will come together to consider unity in communion:  “Christ is our unity.”

Steve Blewett of Our Lady of Fatima said that his table talked about the Eucharist being “the Lord’s meal, not our church’s meal or a personal meal.  The Lord wants all to share in it.”  He also celebrates the election of a man of color as President, a man who is reaching across boundaries to those who did not vote for him:  “I hope we can gather with him and others to make the coming years opportunities to bridge the divides and come together, to move beyond the divisiveness of faith to the inclusiveness of faith.”

After that sharing, the panelists offered some responses:

Bishop Mize, who grew up Catholic, said he received “Jesus Christ as my personal savior” 50 years ago.  He did not understand then how he could make a difference, but has been involved with his former church since. 

“I wanted to live the example of tolerance, love and appreciation with those who think of differences.  We have much in common and theological connections,” he said, encouraging laity not to wait for bishops to move around barriers.

He considers those who share his belief in Jesus Christ as his brothers and sisters regardless of their denominations. 

“I love those who are of my denomination and I love those who are not of my denomination,” he said, amazed that he as a Pentecostal sits each week with people who are Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopalian.

“These are my brothers.  We have a good time at the breakfast table.  What God wants shouldn’t be a strain.  Life is too short to be encumbered,” he said.  “Although my denomination does not agree with all I do, I will love and work with whom I choose.”

He realizes God sent him to Spokane to “sit with these people I now love.”

Bishop Skylstad added, “Ecumenism is evident at Our Place, in a covenant among three Spokane Valley churches and in rural communities.”

Bishop Waggoner offered three thoughts:

• “We are on parallel tracks that do not intersect, but I hear a prayer that we interact without fear of what others believe when we share ecumenically or interfaith.  I pray we share, not to change others but to be honest about our beliefs and mission, without thinking others need to be the same.”

• At the Lambeth Conference this summer in Canterbury, about 700 Anglican bishops across the globe met:  “We sat with people from China, Australia, Tanzania, Sudan and many countries.  A Catholic cardinal, a Jewish rabbi and a Russian Orthodox patriarch joined us.”

A bishop asked the patriarch, “What can we do to help you accept or agree with decisions?” The patriarch replied, “Nothing you do can make me accept your decisions, but I can agree to love you and work together in mission.” 

“We must talk about our differences,” Bishop Waggoner said, “but we can’t be captive to them.  We can go on to greater unity.”

• Networks, people not just wireless ones, help make organizations successful:  “I hope we network in creative, intentional ways. God is always doing a new thing.  We must ask where God is leading us and what we can do ecumenically.”

Bishop Waggoner concluded: “Who is not here?” is always the question to ask.

Bishop Wells said part of his work is provocation, asking questions.  He wondered how the conversation sounded to young people at one table.  He marveled at the new President and the healing at Grant Park in Chicago with 100,000 people celebrating life and hope, leaving behind contentious issues of the 1960s. He asked: “What would it mean for the church to be an icon of hope at the center of our common life?”

He suggested an alternative to sharing bread is foot washing, a sign of mutual servanthood as churches come together. He is aware that issues like death with dignity and same-sex marriage continue to be divisive concerns for churches to address. 

“Is ambiguity an okay part of our witness or is it an unnecessary mishandling of our faith that we need to work on?” he asked.  “I also wonder if ecumenical questions have shifted to interfaith relations.

“Our Catholic brothers led us with the letter on the Columbia Watershed. On its ninth anniversary, Lutheran bishops will sign it.  How will churches contribute to the conversation on water in the West?” Bishop Wells asked.

On the 20th anniversary of the WAC-developed letter of apology from religious leaders to Northwest tribes, he will add his name to the apology and offered to take it to Agnes Broncheau’s home.

WAC director Woldt sees opportunities as people emerge from disillusionment and hopelessness.Saying that she sees opportunities for the WAC to build relationships in local communities, she introduced Malcolm Haworth who will work in Spokane for the WAC, as well as the Interfaith Council and The Fig Tree.

“Many councils are into interfaith work.  In some ways, it is easier than working on the ends of the spectrum in the Christian Church,” she noted.  “There is work to do in both areas.

The WAC has some new visions for grassroots ecumenical efforts, using technology to nurture networks, share information, include people geographically distant in meetings, replicate successful ministries and communicate with elected officials.

In 2009, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will begin with the Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration and end with the Week of Prayer worship, creating an opportunity to work with the African-American community.

Fig Tree editor Stamp said The Fig Tree Board is concerned how media spread division:  “We need to move from hate and fear as ways to build unity to build ways to share real unity.”

Woman bringing bread
Woman bringing bread

During the closing worship, the Rev. Happy Watkins, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Spokane spoke on the story of the feeding of the 5,000.

 “What’s in your bag?” he asked, sharing Jesus’ response to disciples’ worried they didn’t have enough food or money to feed the crowd gathered to hear Jesus.

“Philip looked in the treasury, and there was only $32.77, not enough money to feed them.  Philip and Andrew found a boy with five barley loaves and two smelt, still not enough.  What could they do to feed the crowd?

“If we set aside human reasoning, a new religion will come forth called compassion,” Happy said. “We talk about differences and can’t ignore or explain the new religion of compassion.”

He reminded the group that Martin Luther King, Jr., believed all people have the right to have three meals a day for their bodies; culture and education for their minds; dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits; health, education and welfare; and to affordable homes, jobs and knowledge of their history.

“The measure of a Christian is not where he or she stands in times of comfort and convenience,” he said.  “It’s okay to live on the South Hill, but don’t forget those who live in Peaceful Valley.

“I ask each of you, ‘What is in your bag?’  Hopefully compassion and hope,” he said, quoting a poem: “I sought my soul, but my soul could not see.  I sought my God, but my God eluded me.  I sought my brother and found all three.”

For information, call 535-1813.