The diversity of Mt. Republic Chapel of Peace in Cooke City, Montana, came by geographic and logistical necessity.
Even though I was a Presbyterian, we had Baptists and Catholics and charismatics and Methodists and non-denominationalists worshiping together every Sunday, gathering for Bible study every Wednesday night and serving our community. Yellowstone Presbytery ordained me into my first call at this interdenominational congregation two miles from the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
We were intentionally interdenominational because we were the only church in a radius of over 60 miles.
Cooke City is a snowmobile destination. Gallatin National Forest to the east is perennially ranked in the top five places in North America to find chest-deep powder. There are groomed trails, but they serve only as access to the numerous bowls and mountain faces of the backcountry that thrill seekers come to ride in.
Cooke City is also 10 miles from Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, which is where the first pack of wolves were reintroduced into the park in the mid-1990s. The Druid Peak pack of Lamar Valley became famous, and people moved to Cooke City to follow the pack. Wolf-watching became a lifestyle.
Snowmobilers and wolf watchers were both drawn to the remote, rugged landscape of the Beartooth Mountains and the treasures they contained. Both were members of Mt. Republic Chapel of Peace. But they rarely had similar views on politics. We were a purple congregation.
In the summer, my wife and I went fly-fishing, hiking, backpacking and wolf-watching. In the winter, we went snowmobiling and cross-country skiing and ice fishing. We enjoyed the outdoors with members from the church. The Republicans were not afraid to tell us they were Republican and why. The same was true with the Democrats. But when you develop deep relationships, you discover people are more complex than labels allow.
Pastorally, my instinct told me that you could love Jesus and be a Democrat and you could love Jesus and be a Republican. Caring for the congregation at Mt. Republic Chapel confirmed this. I also found that cancer and marriage conflicts and teenage angst and the ravages of addiction were no respecters of political affiliation. Jesus came to heal our sins and our sufferings. Jesus is here for everybody.
After serving in Cooke City, we moved to Aberdeen, Washington. First Presbyterian Church was also a purple congregation. By purple, I don’t mean moderate; we had representatives on the far ends of the spectrum. And they worshiped and served on session and shared meals and replaced the siding on the west side of the building — together.
I told my mentor I had the sense that both sides assumed I was on their team. I often wondered if I was speaking out of both sides of my mouth. He suggested that this was likely because, through the ministry of First Presbyterian, they were encountering Jesus. Jesus sometimes sounds conservative, sometimes progressive, and, most of the time, something different altogether. He challenges every human system. I remember Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch describing how a congregation that had found the heart of the gospel was like a well in the middle of a desert. Once people found the well and tasted the goodness of the water of life, they kept coming back no matter how much they differed from one another.
This becomes complicated in a thousand directions. The other articles in this issue highlight those complexities. Some congregations might be called to take a stand on certain issues that lean more to the left or the right. We took our stand on unity. I held the conviction that if anything could unite us amidst our differences, it had to be Jesus. Grace is a scandal because grace is a gift. And the Giver is generous. I must believe Jesus has room at his table for everyone. Everyone. Grace can reach anybody. This is our great hope.