Building Ecumenical Ties Through Prayer and Friendship
By Dale Hanson
W hen three Glenmarians arrived in East Tennessee’s Union and Grainger counties in late summer 2011, their foremost goal was to establish the first-ever Catholic presence in those two counties. But in the four years since, they and their diverse mission communities—Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Maynardville (Union) and St. John Paul II in Rutledge (Grainger)—have also built ecumenical relationships that have made a great difference in the meaning, growth and impact of their presence.
Ecumenism—building bridges with other Christian denominations—has always been an integral part of Glenmary’s mission ministry, says mission pastor Father Steve Pawelk. That’s because it helps missions serve others in need, overcome misconceptions about Catholics, and become valued members of the larger community.
“The ease with which this has happened, though, has been one of the biggest surprises,” Father Steve says. Neither county has an ecumenical ministerial association. But he thinks the key has been that “we built our relationships with other ministers and laypeople on prayer, through the power of Jesus Christ. And that has led to the blessings of not just ecumenical relationships, but strong ecumenical friendships.”
There is only one Holy Spirit, he says. “We need to let that Spirit lead us to form a community of faith together.” Striking examples of this coming together include first-ever Thanksgiving ecumenical services in Union, and enthusiastically received joint ecumenical revivals in Grainger.
Father Steve, Brother Craig Digmann and Brother Joe Steen have all contributed in a range of ways. Shortly after they arrived, they took part in their first major ecumenical event in Union County: a large march against drug and alcohol abuse followed by a prayer service. Afterwards, Brothers Craig and Joe began attending ecumenical prayer services for the end of drug and alcohol abuse, and related intentions, every third Saturday for years.
One individual the Glenmarians met at that first event was Pastor Jim Mulkey of the Revival Vision Church of God, who invited them to join the weekly men’s prayer group at his church. Four years later, with Pastor Bryan Wheble now leading this Pentecostal church, the combined group is still praying every week, and this ecumenical friendship has deepened and thrived.
Brother Joe, a master carpenter, also helped the Revival Vision congregation with their church construction project in 2012. And when the new building was dedicated, Father Steve was asked to say a prayer over the members.
Today, Father Steve and Pastor Bryan get together periodically for a meal and conversation. “We have talked to each other’s congregations, and he invited me to speak about Catholicism to his adult learning class,” says Father Steve. “Our friendship and the friendship between our churches have been huge blessings.”
In October 2011, Pastor Ken Luton and the people of Miller’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Maynardville graciously allowed the new Blessed Teresa community to celebrate Sunday Mass in their building several times—the start of another enduring relationship with “many levels of fellowship,” Father Steve says.
Until 2011, Union County residents had never before gathered for an ecumenical Thanksgiving service. But that year, pastors and members of Miller’s Chapel, Revival Vision and Blessed Teresa mission joined together to give thanks to God. It’s now an annual tradition. In 2014—because of invitations extended by Brother Craig—one of the county’s Baptist ministers, some of his congregation members, and other people came for the first time.
What’s more, this Baptist minister plans to host the service in 2015. Brother Craig is optimistic that a number of other ministers and laypeople will come.
“The word of God calls for unity of the brethren. We’re celebrating our shared beliefs,” says Pastor Bryan. “Father Steve is right when he says this relationship is built on prayer and friendship.”
In the summer of 2012, still another exciting annual event began in Union County when Blessed Teresa mission and Miller’s Chapel began cohosting a joint Vacation Bible School.
Meanwhile, in Grainger County, Father Steve of St. John Paul II mission, Pastor Ryan Davenport of Rutledge United Methodist Church and Pastor Chandler “Chan” Vinson of Rutledge Baptist Church have also forged a strong, growing ecumenical relationship.
When Father Steve first arrived in the area, Pastor Ryan allowed him to hold several Catholic organizational meetings in the Methodist building. And Pastor Chan extended his own welcome.
The three men have gotten together for conversation, reflection, prayer and lunch once a month ever since. “This relationship has developed into a deep, supportive friendship, built on prayer and the Spirit’s guidance. It’s also been a real blessing,” says Father Steve. “One of the first outgrowths was the ecumenical Hands of Christ Emergency Food Pantry we started to serve those in need in the county.”
The three Rutledge church communities have also worked together to collect and distribute back-to-school supplies, clothing and toys as needs and opportunities have arisen.
“We discussed how we could continue sharing our friendship experience,” Father Steve says. “Last spring we held a joint, three-night revival for our congregations with the theme ‘That All May Be One.’ Our people loved it so much that we had a second one this spring, ‘The Least of These.’ We think these revivals are unique and special.”
Last summer, the three churches also held a joint Vacation Bible School open to all, with a second one scheduled this summer.
According to Pastor Ryan, “Several different ministries have grown out of our friendship and the shared goal of working for the common good.”
Pastor Chan adds: “The premise of everything we do together is that Jesus is bigger than our differences. You can just see God at work here.”
Also in Grainger County, Glenmarians have participated in three already-existing ecumenical services—Thanksgiving, Easter Sunrise, the National Day of Prayer. “During a 2011 service-planning session,” says Father Steve, “concerns about drug and alcohol addiction in the community were raised. So I helped organize a program for local ministers on this issue, which led to other gatherings.”
Father Steve and his two pastor friends in Grainger County hope other ministers and congregations will join in their team efforts.
T he one ministry all three Glenmarians share is the Revival Vision prayer group. Beyond that, each carries out his own work with an ecumenical dimension in both counties.
According to Father Steve, Brother Craig’s “ministry of Catholic presence” to the counties’ Christian churches is “one of a kind in Glenmary.” Since early 2012, Brother Craig has received over 140 invitations to come to area churches, has attended more than 70 so far for their services, and has visited even more.
“It seems like the right thing to do in counties that have never had a Catholic presence,” he says. “I’ve gotten to know about 100 pastors. I’ve also sung at over 30 of the services, and I’ve led prayer at about 15.” He now goes to as many as three churches almost every Sunday. The invitations come from those he encounters in his outreach work each day.
In addition, he has periodically brought in gospel music groups from other denominations to sing as part of Blessed Teresa’s weekend liturgies.
His goal is “to attend many churches to give people a taste of the Catholic presence. I just try to share my faith in a gentle way and answer questions about what Catholics believe.
“I feel a strong calling from God to do this. It creates a dialog and opens the door of unity. I just have to be physically present with the people because it gives the Holy Spirit the opportunity to do the work. That’s true of my other work, too.”
His other major ministries are ones of presence, evangelization and outreach throughout the mostly non-Catholic counties. “Ecumenism and evangelization are intertwined,” he says. “Barriers and misunderstandings are coming down, I have very good dialogs with people, and they’ve respected me well.”
He, fellow Glenmarians, and mission members have also volunteered at ecumenical food pantries and charitable giving efforts in both Union and Grainger counties. Brother Craig keeps in touch with pantry directors and arranges to deliver food to people in need.
During these years, Brother Joe Steen has been involved in two primary efforts. He started a home-repair ministry through which he is helping many people in need in both counties. “We’re serving folks from a variety of churches or without a church,” he says. “The message is that the Catholic Church cares about you and there are no strings attached. Our whole goal is to build God’s kingdom.”
Providentially, a Southern-diocese parish priest with a large inheritance has been anonymously funding supply purchases for this ministry, as well as local emergency assistance. And since 2013, student volunteers have assisted Brother Joe on larger projects.
He also serves as a board member for the local Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center. “I’m walking with other people with varied beliefs, and witnessing to how much we as a Church are concerned with some of the same issues—such as caring for and preserving God’s creation,” he adds.
Father Steve reflects that “the ecumenical friendships (in both counties) have borne great fruit. Who knows what the Lord will do next? This is a light that can happen in the world. We can be one body of Christ.”
TO LEARN MORE: Follow Father Steve’s blog at www.glenmary.org/blogs.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 Glenmary Challenge.