On the east side of Columbus, OH, a group of churches and pastors have formed the East Side Fellowship Ministry. The group consists of two Lutheran churches, an Episcopal church, a Presbyterian church, a Disciples of Christ church, a Methodist church, and the OSU chaplaincy. The churches are all African American city churches, which was culture shock for me when I was first assigned to Hope Lutheran church for my Ministry in Context.
One of the most prominent ministries for the ESFM is mid-week Lenten services. Each week, the service is held at a different church. The host pastor does not preach, instead inviting one of the other pastors to do so. That means that over six weeks, I was privileged to hear six very different sermons on what it means to love our neighbor. I witnessed altar calls, dancing (by the one preaching, no less), gospel choirs, and a VERY high church Episcopal Eucharist.
There were times when traditions flat-out clashed. The Lutherans cringed every time a sermon picked up works-righteousness (and boy, some of them actually relied on it). More than a few people were put off by the elaborate ceremony and ritual of the Episcopalian Ash Wednesday Eucharist. No one dared step forward themselves or send anyone else up during the altar calls. It was no secret that certain people deliberately chose not to show up to certain churches.
Seeing these pastors and churches gather, however, was an experience. Eucharist was shared twice during the season–once at the beginning and once at the end. While some of us had “oops” moments when we realized we’d eaten the bread too early or what have you, my observation was that most people shared it. Look back at the list of churches in the ESFM. Some of them don’t have full communion agreements with each other.
Full communion agreements matter on a regional/national/international level. But what effect do they have at the local level? The churches of the ESFM weren’t going to let church politics (some of which are quite beneficial) interfere with their mission and ministry in this part of Columbus, where crime and poverty are everyday norms. The Good Samaritan text was preached more than once this Lent, and the message was taken to heart. In the grand scheme of things, what matters is not who we agree with, but who is in need. These churches come together to take care of the people in their area. They are motivated by love of neighbor. Doctrinal differences are not about to hold them back from caring for their community.
Pastor Bob from Hope Lutheran Church was one who preached on the Good Samaritan. He asked, “Who are we in the story?” We like to think we are the Samaritan. We are afraid that we are the priest or the Levite or the robbers. Some times we even feel like the man beaten and left on the road. But, he said, no one ever thinks about the innkeeper, the one charged with the long term care of the beaten man. Maybe it’s time to start being innkeepers for our neighbors.