When the pastor of San Luis Obispo [Calif.] United Methodist Church called the pastor of Mount Carmel Lutheran Church to borrow some chairs, the response turned out to be even more gracious and prophetic than lending seats: "Come and sit on ours!"
On Easter morning 2001, the hill our two congregations share was ablaze and the Methodist church was completely engulfed. When the Methodist pastor called the Lutheran pastor, his request for chairs was met with an invitation: "Come worship with us." And they accepted. Their processional cross had survived the fire, so the congregation followed it and walked down the hill singing: "Alleluia, Alleluia." The sanctuary was full to overflowing with Methodists and Lutherans singing praise on Easter morning with the scent of smoke in the air.
That fire provided the flash point for a new relationship between these neighbors. The Methodists made a habit of borrowing chairs and tables — and even the sanctuary — while their Wesley building was being remodeled to hold worship.
Those pastors have both moved on, but the warm feelings shared by the congregations have continued to grow. In fact, last spring when the Methodist leadership was planning for the grand opening of their sanctuary, the first guests they wanted to welcome inside were their good neighbors, the Lutherans. The Sunday after Easter 2008, Jane Voights, the UMC pastor, said: "Come and worship with us." And, as the pastor of Mount Carmel, I accepted. We borrowed the Methodists' old processional cross and followed it up the hill and into their sanctuary singing: "Alleluia, Alleluia." That morning we relished being Luther-dists (or Meth-erans) in one place to praise God again.
Our relationship continues to grow: this past September, Pastor Jane was the speaker for the Mount Carmel women's retreat, and I was the preacher at her church for worship. 2010 will bring even more adventures. In March folks from both congregations will travel to Israel/Palestine with Pastor Jane and me. Come summer, our two youth groups will go on a mission trip together.
Thousands of people drive past the Grand Avenue exit on Highway 101 as it winds along the central California coast. I suspect there are at least a few hundred who notice that there are two churches right next to each other. Perhaps they assume we are in competition with each other, as our local Sears has entered into a price war with its new neighbor, Kohl's. Maybe they think the Lutherans are worried that our people will walk through the doors of the UMC sanctuary next door, find a better deal and never come back.
The secular world has every reason to be convinced that Christians are a competitive, angry bunch. We fight between ourselves and we fight with those outside of ourselves. Of course, the media coverage of our August churchwide vote on sexuality fed into all of that. The ELCA/UMC agreement didn't get as much press, but that doesn't mean we can't all use it as a means to witness to the peace we share. It's my prayer that the ashes of the fire of 2001 will inspire the folks of our UMC and Lutheran congregations to share in the work Christ has for us in San Luis Obispo long into the future.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers