It all started in late January 2016 when a dedicated Week of Prayer for Christian Unity volunteer from an ELCA Lutheran church whispered into the ear of a dedicated WPCU volunteer from a Roman Catholic church, “Did you hear about the Pope and the woman Bishop?” The Vatican and the LWF had recently released news of the joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden on October 31, 2016.
From that first conversation, we have seen grow an amazing effort between faithful, curious, and energetic Evanston neighbors. Initially led by laity from St. Nicholas (Roman Catholic) and pastors and lay leaders from St. Paul’s, Grace, and Immanuel (ELCA), we now have had the leadership and involvement from all four Evanston Roman Catholic parish members and priests, all four ELCA Lutheran congregation leaders and pastors, and the campus ministries and leaders at Northwestern University. Just recently, we received offers of assistance from Roman Catholic and ELCA Lutheran professors at Garrett Evangelical Seminary. As we look back on our work together, the forming and strengthening of friendships in the present, and the excitement and hope for the future, it is hard not to acknowledge the gifts of the Spirit being made manifest in this journey together into the “Beyond”.
Here are just some examples: we already had formed trusting relationships via the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; one lay leader formerly worked for the Chicago Archdiocese’s Office for Interreligious and Ecumenical Affairs and was very experienced in the Roman Catholic call for ecumenical dialogues; Evanston has a long history of active interreligious/ ecumenical families; a Roman Catholic religious studies professor and her ELCA pastor spouse were willing to dedicate significant time to the leadership team; and, long ago, many of the Evanston ordained clergy began answering the call to ecumenism in ecclesial and personal ways.
Fr. Joseph Tito, who arrived at St. Nicholas in the Fall of 2016, said, “It helped to have the work already started while I was learning about St. Nicholas’ context – I have never seen such a variety of ecumenical and inter-religious families in one parish!” However, nothing can match the impact of the number of congregation/parish members who repeatedly have expressed deep and profound longing for unity. Each time we meet in dialogue (service, learning, or sharing), it brings great joy to remind one another of the many aspects of our Christian faith we share as well as to respectfully give voice to the lament that we have not fully reconciled in Christ – especially at the Eucharistic Table.
We used the Spring and Summer of 2016 to form a leadership team, become better educated together as a leadership team, and plan a year-long effort in “dialogues” (a Roman Catholic term for exploring ecumenical relationships). We separated our plans into categories: Dialogue of Life (live in open and neighborly spirit, sharing joys and sorrows, interests and problems); Dialogue of Theological Exchange (deepen our understanding of and respect for each respective traditions/teachings); Dialogue of Religious Experience (seek to grow in Christian unity, sharing spiritual practices); and Dialogue of Action (collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people and care for Creation).
Lutherans can see that these categories align with our baptismal promises: living among God’s faithful people; teaching the faith; proclaiming Christ and participating in the Word and sacraments; and caring for others and God’s world as well as working for justice and peace. We asked each participating congregation to donate a few hundred dollars to help us execute our plans (duplication costs, stipends, refreshments, etc.). The majority of our costs have been covered by individual donations. We originally thought we could aim for a covenant celebration by Pentecost 2017, but quickly realized that that was too ambitious. Instead, after the synod and archdiocese plans were announced, we hoped an Evanston-based covenant celebration might be possible on or before Reformation Sunday 2017.
Our shared emphasis on serving others and caring for Creation provided an easy entry into our year. We invited all to participate in the September 2016 God’s Work Our Hands Sunday and chose projects that benefited the communities near both Catholic and Lutheran congregations. After eating lunch and being commissioned together, we split up into groups of both Lutherans and Catholics to complete the projects together. We received a Thrivent Action Team grant to help defray the costs. The stories shared, the memories made, and the friendships begun were priceless. It was so well received that we are planning a “2nd Annual” Joint God’s Work Our Hands Sunday on September 10, 2017.
We spent three Sundays in October studying From Conflict to Communion with facilitation by Dr. Cristie Traina, Professor of Religion, Northwestern University Department of Religious Studies and Rev. Dr. Eric Bodenstab, ELCA Pastor and Lutheran Theologian. We experienced the benefit of ensuring both Catholics and Lutherans were present at the discussion tables. We were honored to welcome renowned religious historian and Lutheran pastor the Rev. Dr. Martin Marty on Reformation Sunday afternoon. While his lecture was very well received, the Q & A at the end provided strong affirmation for the planned dialogues and resulted in more involvement from our community. The next day, Reformation Day 2016, we together watched the telecast from Lund Sweden. There were more than a few tears shed and the variety of comments shared made this a most memorable and inspiring morning for all who were able to attend and stay to process its impact.
Although the timing had nothing to do with the national election (the date was set based upon Luther’s birthday), folks found multiple reasons to appreciate our fun Hymns and Hops event at a local pub in mid-November. There is nothing like harmonizing together to help emphasize both the diversity of gifts we bring and the unity we share as we give glory and honor to God through the grace of Christ Jesus. We used another Thrivent Action Team grant to help pay some of the costs, but, rest assured, everyone paid for their own liquid hops! Based upon the positive comments, we anticipate this may be repeated in years to come.
A unique La Posadas Walk occurred during an Advent mid-week shared worship experience. Due to current events and bitter cold weather, Grace Lutheran hosted an interior walk and focused upon the Syrian refugee crisis as well as the ministries we share with other Evanston faith communities via RefugeeOne.
The deepening political divides provided a poignant backdrop for Evanston’s annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity worship theme: Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us (2 Cor. 5:14-20). Hosted by Immanuel Lutheran, we had a truly ecumenical representation of clergy and church members in attendance and a lovely time of fellowship following. In late February, we presented a Myth Busters forum with Lutheran pastor Keith Fry and Catholic theologian Dr. Susan Ross, Loyola University Chicago, serving together on a panel moderated by Lutheran pastor Bill Hutchison. It was well attended and helped set the stage for a 4-week Lenten Study of the Declaration On The Way. We were blessed to have Dr. Kathryn Johnson, the ELCA Director of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations and former LWF assistant general secretary for ecumenical affairs and acting director of theology and studies, share her insights at our first study session in Lent. She helped us set a firm foundation of always beginning from the agreements and enthusiastically showed us the fifty-year effort we were joining.
During Holy Week, there was another poignantly tangible “on the way” event when the members of Grace Lutheran joined the Easter Vigil at St. Nicholas Catholic (a joint experience that had begun years before), Fr. Tito blessed the whole Lutheran group together at the Eucharistic table. According to Fr. Tito, it was a “beautiful moment of both respect and communion in the larger sense.”
A small group of Lutherans and Catholics traveled together to St. Louis to participate in the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust (post-Ferguson) and enjoyed the opportunity to engage in all four types of dialogue in an intense four-day period – worship, living, learning, acting for justice, and sharing together. A forum is being planned to share the insights from such an impactful experience and to give voice to our young adults’ hopes.
The late Spring and Summer of 2017 is being used to draft an Evanston Covenant between as many Evanston Roman Catholic parishes and ELCA congregations as possible. At this writing, we are on the second draft and eager to hear the input from our many ministry leaders.
An organic gathering of Lutherans and Catholics will march behind a banner at the Evanston 4th of July parade and plans are underway for a facilitated gathering in mid-October to discuss the challenges and opportunities for greater Christian spirituality within Catholic/Lutheran inter-church families.
A gifted team of worship leaders is planning our shared liturgy on the afternoon of October 29 at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary’s Chapel. We plan to sign and celebrate our finalized Evanston Covenant as well as plant an Evanston tree in honor of our shared vision, affirmations, and commitments. Two days later, we hope to climb onto buses and share the journey from Evanston to Holy Name Cathedral – together witnessing Cardinal Supich and Bishop Miller renew the existing Archdiocese and Synod Covenant. Based upon the importance of breaking delicious bread together at each of our gatherings, we have no doubt that a few well-stocked picnic baskets will be present, too.
All along, we have been focused upon the “Beyond”. The commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation has been merely a jumping off point. In order to help us live into the “Beyond”, we have planned, prepared, and shared these dialogues in order to form the relationships and the commitments needed to be truly the Body of Christ on earth as in heaven. We have come to realize that the newer generations are not only are asking for this, but they expect this depth of commitment to authentically and tangibly show how much we need each other, how clearly we hear and are willing to follow Christ’s call, and how desperately the world needs our unity – now and forever.
The Rev. Betty E. Landis, Pastor, St. Paul’s ELCA Evanston and the Rev. Joseph Tito, Pastor, St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Parish, Evanston