Peace is an action word. It is a practice of faith and an essential component of the Christian way of life. It is at the core of ecumenism. It is a struggle and a challenge.
When I go to gatherings of Christians from different traditions, as a historian, I often think of the relationship these groups of people have had with one another over time. Many varieties of Christians came into being as a result of conflicts with one another during some previous century. Some of those conflicts resulted in a differentiation of identities. Some conflicts resulted in protracted exchanges of verbal venom or even war. Looking across the room I see descendants of the struggles of the 16th century Reformation debates. I see men and women who carry in them the blood of those who survived the Thirty Years War. For me, it is an amazing thing. There were generations during which the ancestors of those in the room could scarcely have imagined being in the same place with one another without someone ending up hurt — or worse. It is important to pause long enough to notice the miracle that is represented by such gatherings.
Now, people from many Christian traditions come together to talk, to work, and to pray (and sometimes worship). Handshakes, hugs, head nods, and all manner of kind words are shared. This is the result of risks taken by countless individuals on behalf of their churches. We recall the names of some of them. But, as with so many things in life, most who have done great things remain anonymous or completely missing from the story we call history. Ecumenical gatherings are testaments to the peacemaking of the past; and they are exercises in the peacemaking of the present.
The inspiration from God that convinces us that we should be together under the leadership and teaching of Christ Jesus is also an inspiration to work for unity among all of humanity and all of creation. It is not a hollow ideal, however. It is something that generations of faithful Christians have given substantial parts of their lives to see enacted in this world. It is more than an idea. It comes alive when Christians of different traditions share love with one another and stand together in sharing God’s love with the world. Living the peace of God happens in places we notice and places most people will never know about. Mostly it takes place in our local communities.
In one community along the narrow waters between Michigan and Ontario, some years back, economic change had put a large number of people out of work. Hardest hit were the young. There were few entry-level jobs; no opportunities to begin taking on adult financial responsibilities in order to start to build a grown up life. Hundreds of youth in the town were coming to the end of their school years with very limited prospects for making their own way in the years to come.
Two pastors, one Baptist and one United Methodist, whose church buildings were only a few blocks away from each other, met on the street as one of these men walked his dog. They introduced themselves. And, recognizing that the members of their congregation shared similar challenges, they wondered if there might be something they could do together that would have a stronger positive impact in the town than anything that one church could do on its own. They began making time to meet with one another regularly. They committed to praying for their town and the people there who were struggling. They sought inspiration for ideas that could lead to good things — especially for the youth.
They eventually felt led to hold a festival in the town’s waterfront park at the end of the coming summer. They would invite Christian musicians and speakers. They would visit the other churches in town and ask them to be a part of bringing as many people together as possible. They stopped in at local businesses and sought their support. And everything they did would be to encourage the young people in the town. They would raise money to build a park specifically for them. It was not a solution to the problems; but it was meant to show the young people that the residents of the town cared, that they loved them, and that they stood by them in the struggle to build a life during hard times.
It was a simple idea. Bring people together. Help everyone to realize that they had each other. They were a community.
They discovered that the simple idea was not easy to make happen, though. One church in town refused completely to participate in any activities with any of the other churches in town. They said they were working hard to help their own youth and that they didn’t want to water down their efforts in their congregation by adding confusion about why they were working with other churches whose beliefs they did not share. Some churches said they would share information about the event and their members could participate and attend if they wanted to. Their church leaders would not endorse the event or the project in general. But they would not speak against it. One church’s pastor was very cautious and wanted to discuss points of belief to make sure he was not exposing his church members to false doctrines. The conversation that followed did not put his mind at ease. On the contrary, he said he would have to oppose anyone from his congregation having anything to do with the outreach.
The Baptist and the United Methodist pastors went ahead as the only religious leaders in the town willing to be seen by the public as working together. They held evening gatherings where youth could socialize. Baptists and United Methodists were joined by several young people from other churches and by others who were not involved with any churches but who had heard of things by word of mouth. In a town that had very few places where young people could be together, those gatherings made a place for talking, laughing, and eating with one another. Also, as a bit of a surprise, the youth pastor of one of the other churches that had said they would not endorse — nor speak against — the effort showed up with several young people to join the weekly gatherings.
Over the months leading up to the festival in the park, many unexpected things happened. A trip to the town historical association led the group to discover that during the first decades of the town’s existence (then a century and a half ago), both the Baptists and Methodists had used the same building for their worship services. In those early years the relationship between the two churches had been quite close. Members of both churches literally built the town together. Later, when the congregations grew, each church built its own church building. Then they seemed to have focused mostly upon the lives in their own religious communities and not on relationship with each other. At one gathering related to the festival, two women found themselves listening to a concert and began talking afterwards. They discovered they had been neighbors for fifty years, their back yards separated only by a fence, and they had never met each other before that night.
The festival took place and attendance was greater than the membership of the Baptist and United Methodist churches put together. The older adults brought lawn chairs or sat on the ground near the speakers and the music. Many of the younger people (who also turned out in significant numbers) sat or stood farther out. When approached by older members of the community, some of them made remarks like, “I can’t believe you all are doing this for us.” Again and again, speakers said from the microphones that they knew life was hard for those just starting out; but the town wanted its young people to know they were important to them and wanted to encourage them. Awhile later, money raised was used to build a skateboard park. It was a physical reminder of the love the town shared with them.
There are countless stories like this about which we almost never hear. Small towns and big city neighborhoods that have people coming together because they are Christians and feel that the faithful should work together for the wellbeing of their communities. This is peacemaking at the level of the foundations of society.
At whatever level at which humans share lives together, efforts to live out the unity of the church also work to strengthen the unity of the communities, regions, nations, and the world. Just as Jesus went into the midst of people to heal and feed them, so are Christians today in the midst of their societies with the opportunity to address the needs around them as well.
Bringing people together in love is something Jesus did throughout his earthly ministry. He taught by his example. It is when love is not brought into our relationships and communities that the struggles that are a normal part of life fester into wounds infected with hatred and violence. Diseases of this sort afflict societies in every geographic location. They also sometimes afflict Christ’s church itself. Conflicts are natural. Avoidance of conflict is most often denial of what is simply a part of life. Meeting life and all of its struggles with effort at building loving relationships — uniting people in the assurance that they are cared for and that they matter — is medicine for troubles big and small.
It is when we come together, love one another, and refuse to walk away that we prepare ourselves for the next lesson: how to live with one another fairly and justly. When we answer God’s call to be one — to be united — in God’s own love, we gain the strength and the courage to be authentically ourselves in witness to, and with, one another.
In that small city in Michigan I mentioned above, the Baptists and United Methodists did not merge and become one congregation. They were very different people who liked different styles of worship and had different theological understandings. What they did do was come to realize that they are family and they recognize that sometimes the bigger family does well when it gets together. This was demonstrated a few days after the festival. It was 11 September 2001. The tragedies of that day took place and people were in shock. The United Methodist pastor made calls and let people in town know he would be opening his church for prayer that night. The chapel filled that evening and most of those who came were not members of his congregation. One woman said, “When I heard that people were coming together to pray tonight, I knew I had to be there.” They prayed together for peace and for those who had taken so many lives.
Peace is the fruit of actively loving one another.