WINTERS IN CENTRAL VERMONT ARE LONG, USUALLY LASTING FROM A FIRST SNOW IN EARLY NOVEMBER THROUGH MUD SEASON (the season people elsewhere call “spring”) in early April. While many people enjoy outdoor activities all winter long, the homeless and precariously housed members of our Barre, Vermont, community need a place of warmth.
Churches in our community, in partnership with our local library, created a patchwork schedule based on the conviction that there should always be a place in town where one can be warm.
Collaboratively providing warm spaces was the beginning of BiG (Barre Interfaith Group). Since BiG’s beginning a decade ago, partnerships have strengthened. Our scope has broadened to feeding ministries of body and soul, working on housing and educating around the intersections of spirituality and mental health.
BiG’s work shows up in a variety of annual interfaith efforts ranging from union summer services to Good Friday prayer walks (with focus on violence, addiction and community health) to vigils in response to shootings like those in Orlando and Las Vegas.
Naturally, BiG partnerships came to mind as I wondered about ways to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. An article by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s president Ted Wardlaw in the Nov. 7, 2016 issue of the Presbyterian Outlook found its way into my hands. In “Ecclesial humility,” Wardlaw told of an encounter with a Catholic priest/neighbor:
“This summer, in what was to me a breathtaking act of ecclesial humility, the pastor of the Catholic parish nearest our campus made an overture. ‘Can we work together to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?’ he said. ‘In so many ways, we were wrong,’ he said.”
Reaching across a 500-year-old breach
I thought to myself: There’s a Catholic priest/neighbor in a rectory about 100 yards from my desk. Could I practice ecclesial humility and ecumenical association?
I hit “send” on an email to Father Peter O’Leary, having attached Wardlaw’s article, and invited him to our own Catholic/Protestant [email protected] dialogue. We coordinated two gatherings for the month of the Reformation’s anniversary, October of 2017. The format would be a recounting of the history of the Reformation, followed by an open Q-and-A of Catholic priest and Presbyterian minister alike.
Fr. Peter hosted the first of the gatherings in St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church. We hosted the second at the First Presbyterian Church. I kept wondering and asking my brother Peter whether Catholics would go to that Protestant church. People with deep and longstanding roots in our community vividly and viscerally remember being warned by priest and nun alike, “You cannot step foot in that church or you’ll be assured of going to hell!” The conversation made clear the necessary title of our gatherings: “The Reformation at 500: Will I REALLY go to hell if I step into THAT church?”
Faithful souls, Protestant and Catholic alike, braved the threshold of each other’s churches to engage in prayer, dialogue and conversation. Fr. Peter and I gave an overview history of the Christian church, smoothly weaving a history of faithfulness and failings as we tag-teamed church history up to the Reformation. Discussions of our varied understandings of faith and works occupied much of our discussion time, along with explanations of Catholic doctrines like purgatory and penance. We discussed understandings of calling, ordination, and open and closed communion. And, we shared the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification, which is the 1999 agreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church (affirmed by the World Communion of Reformed Churches in 2017).
Vexing points of difference
Throughout our gathering, church members offered comments and questions. A devout Catholic asked, “If Jesus said about the Last Supper, ‘this IS my body,’ why do you all NOT believe that the sacred host literally becomes the body of Christ like Catholics do?” While I was thinking through my response, a ruling elder in our church said, “Can I give an answer to that?”
I thought to myself: You go!
“When Jesus said those words at the meal, he was literally there, in the flesh,” the elder said. “He wasn’t giving the people his actual body. As a writer, I know that Jesus was creating a wonderful metaphor that would sustain the people for generations.”
Sitting in the fifth pew of the Presbyterian church, a woman in her 70s said, “I was baptized across the street and have lived in this town my whole life and I have never set foot in this church. It is really nice to be here. It’s a new kind of journey for me.”
One of our Catholic guests said: “I think of it this way: some of us are driving Chevys, others Toyotas, others Fords. But, we’re all driving to the same place. I think we find God in a way that makes sense of us and in a way that nourishes us.” Heads in the room nodded in agreement.
After one of our gatherings, I was approached by a Catholic youth who had recently been studying European history in high school. He was a self-described philosopher of religion.
“I didn’t want to put you on the spot in front of everyone,” he said, “but can you explain to me how Presbyterians can hold a position that’s anything other than pro-life? I just don’t understand.” Our ensuing discussion wandered into Presbyterian polity and explored Presbyterian phrases like one in particular that has been close to my own heart, “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”
Through the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, I found myself grateful for BiG connections, a network of people from various denominations committed to working for justice, practicing charity and creating warm spaces for people in need. And I found myself grateful for the warm space created by ecumenical dialogue.
At both of our [email protected] gatherings, a handful of people came up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “Thank your for doing this. These conversations make a difference. We need to have these conversations more often.” I both thought and said, “Yes, we do.” And, yes, we will!
CARL HILTON VANOSDALL is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Barre, Vermont. He has been the convener of the Barre Interfaith Group in recent years.