A Catholic nun and a Baptist minister walked into a Thai restaurant. They sat down and ordered Pad Thai. Over noodles and conversation they discovered that, long ago and some 500 miles away, they were connected to the same roots. Sister Janis went to high school at the parochial school that I walked by each day on my way to the public school. I nearly spit out my tea when we realized how close we were in distance back then in a large northern city, and here we were in a small rural town in the foothills of North Carolina having lunch. We never knew one another until Sister Janis came to town to be the pastoral administrator for the local Catholic church. We continued our lunch as if we were long lost friends.
Catholics and Baptists weren’t always so congenial, I am told. I never knew any different. I blame it on my parents. Every summer my father planned a one to two week family vacation by car. When a Sunday was involved, we attended worship at a local church in whatever town we were visiting. I loved it. Just the other day, my middle brother stared at me incredulously when I said how much I liked doing that. “You actually enjoyed that??” he questioned while shaking his head. Obviously, he wasn’t so taken with this foray into exploring other churches. And, I might add, different denominations. That was the beginning of my ecumenical education. I loved it so much that I became an ecumenical snob because I could cite the theological and liturgical differences between the different denominations. My parents also helped me understand the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Hindu faiths, because we had friends who practiced them.
I have found that, over the years of my ministry, having knowledge of and connection to other denominations and faiths have enriched my own. I have discovered wonderful worship and study resources, and new spiritual practices that I would have missed had I not had these relationships.
My disappointment comes in finding out how little people know, or care, about other faith practices, if they aren’t their own. Unfortunately, this leads to distrust and dislike. In one particular instance, I was writing a letter to our local ministers’ association the year I was president. My letter was inviting other pastors to join us and I described our group as ecumenical. When I asked the vice-president to proof the letter for me, he immediately requested that I remove the word “ecumenical,” as it would scare some pastors away. I commented that we are ecumenical. “Yes, but just don’t use that word,” he replied. I couldn’t believe it or understand it. But he was right. My ecumenical innocence bubble had burst.
Being ecumenical doesn’t mean I give up my own theological stance, but it does mean that I respect others’ views on practicing their faith — whatever it is. I continue to be fascinated with what I learn from others about their faith. I have found that sometimes the different view they share with me calls me to deep reflection. I have even incorporated a new perspective or two into my own beliefs. My spiritual life continues to grow as I discover new ways of praying and worshiping. I believe in a God that is bigger than what I can understand of my own faith – and others’ faith. God can handle that I venture into other churches, synagogues and temples. God knows my heart and God also knows that it grows three times bigger each time I take the time to truly listen to the heart of my fellow sister and brother in faith – whatever their faith or denomination may be.