Presbyterians have long advocated for ecumenical and interreligious collaboration around the world. They have also led efforts in the United States to bring denominations and faiths together in common cause.

In the months leading up to General Assembly 225, the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligous Relations (GACEIR) is sharing individual reflections about ecumenical and interreligious ministry happening throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Through these stories we hope to inspire you to work ecumenically and with other religious traditions in your community to find ways to share God’s love with the world.

As the pandemic has reminded us, we are closer than we think. We have the same needs and wants for our families and our faith communities. We have limited resources and energy, yet we can find our ways through anything if we work together. Our communities are not only defined by geographies and background, but by shared purpose.

Have a recent story of ecumenical or interreligious cooperation to share with GACEIR? Please email me.
--Dr. Dianna Wright, GACIER staff member

The Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams, photo by author.

The Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams - photo by author.

Ecumenical and interreligious ministry can begin with relationship building, which leads, step-by-step, to creative ministry and long-lasting friendships.

Since before my first call, I have been engaged in community outreach programs to assist people in need, and ecumenical and interreligious ministry. Those valuable experiences have created lasting relationships.

My congregation, First United Presbyterian Church in Richmond, is a member church of the Presbytery of the James. As an executive in previous presbyteries, I was invited to monthly lunches with judicatory leaders from several denominations: namely the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Reformed Church in America, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and United Methodist Church.

One time we gathered at the conference room of the ELCA Bishop and a few of his staff members, enjoyed lunch, and shared good stories about our ministries. Conference ministers, district superintendents, bishops, executive presbyters, and the like came together in prayerful commitment to know more about each other and to be united in heart and soul.

In one telephone conversation, the ELCA Bishop and I decided it would be a good idea to become better acquainted and to see how we might work together. From those conversations, we developed a fine partnership which resulted in one of our Presbyterian elders who was completing seminary to be hired by the bishop to develop partnership ministries between our denominations and others throughout the community. What an exciting opportunity that was! It was an opportunity to create close, abiding ties with ministries that aided people in the community and brought our denominations closer together! The elder became ordained and is now a pastor in that community.

Likewise, in a former congregation I pastored, the food pantry/clothing closet/utility assistance program received donations (monetary, volunteer, and commodities) from several congregations and a nearby synagogue. The synagogue and other churches jointly sponsored strong community programs that assisted and empowered families, youth, and others in the area. In addition, certain volunteers from the various congregations gathered at our church twice a week to provide services. The relationships that developed resulted in joint worship, community celebrations, and abiding friendships between pastors, rabbis, and other staff members.

The reality of the pandemic has rendered it difficult to organize groups for meals and events in which people are not socially distanced. In such cases, Zoom events are good alternatives for ecumenical and interreligious gatherings, whether they are on the church or office grounds or even at the homes of leaders, in their backyards or poolside at their apartment complexes. (I have attended morning coffees or brunches and gatherings on church grounds and at poolside apartment complexes in which judicatory leaders and other church leaders provide fellowship and planning meetings without a deep fear of contracting COVID-19 or its variants.) There are creative means by which we can continue meaningful ministry in spite of the pandemic.

Even during the pandemic, the needs of God’s created people continue. Many churches adjust the manner of providing services. Congregations keep food pantries, clothing closets, and utility assistance programs open.  However, they adjust the manner in which clients attend. Some leaders deliver the goods throughout the community, others sit in chairs just outside the church doors, and still others request that clients drive to the church parking lots and wait for service. While we adjust the methods, we continue these needed programs.

There is an adage that has been handed down for many years among church leaders that says, “When we make a single step (“one step”), God makes two.” In many cases, program-building can come from single friendships, joint gatherings of leaders, friendships between staff, and most of all, a commitment to serve. God is always “in the midst” of what we do. Intentional ministry can develop from friendships, conversations over lunch or coffee, and a commitment to creative service.

Psalm 133 always comes to mind in my reflections about ministry, worship, and developing lasting ties between others in the faith. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Ps. 133, vs. 1, NRSV)

Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams is Covenant Pastor at First United Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia and a member of GACEIR.