Over a half century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lamented that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning might be the most segregated hour of the week. Some within the church who work to address racial divisions today have asserted that even predominantly black and predominantly white congregations within the same denomination do not worship together. Apparently, they were not at St. Margaret’s in Trotwood on March 4 or at St. Mark’s in Riverside on April 29, as the two parishes celebrated ten years of worshiping together.
At one time, the churches of what was then the Dayton Deanery participated in an annual “clergy swap.” On a designated Sunday, the priest serving each congregation would instead preside and preach at another area church. The practice enabled the clergy to get to know better the members of other congregations, and vice versa.
As changing circumstances made that practice more complicated and enthusiasm for it waned, the parish leaders at St. Mark’s began to discuss a more radical idea. Instead of just the priests in two churches changing places for the day, what if the entire congregation from St. Mark’s joined the congregation from another church for worship?
Since the parish wanted also to do something about the racial divide in the greater-Dayton area and in society in general, they decided to pursue the suggestion of worshiping together with St. Margaret’s Church. St. Margaret’s is a predominantly (though not exclusively) African-American congregation and is the western-most Episcopal Church in Montgomery County. St. Mark’s is a predominantly (though not exclusively) Caucasian congregation and is the eastern-most Episcopal Church in the county.
St. Mark’s rector, the Rev. Mike Kreutzer, approached his counterpart at St. Margaret’s, the Rev. Ben Speare-Hardy, and explained the proposal. Fr. Ben, in turn, discussed it with the other leaders of his parish, and together the churches came up with a plan. On the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the people of St. Margaret’s came to St. Mark’s, joining in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and staying for lunch. Then, on the Third Sunday of Easter, St. Mark’s traveled to St. Margaret’s for worship and fellowship.
Over the past ten years, the two congregations have worshiped and enjoyed a meal together as one church, once each year in Lent and once in the Easter season. They alternate the season during which each one serves as host. Each church celebrates the Eucharist according to its own customs, while working to ensure that those who are visiting can also participate fully. One notable highlight of each celebration is the contribution of a combined choir from the two parishes.
Some of their joint Sunday mornings have included special celebrations. One year, for example, a family from St. Mark’s had arranged for their extended family to come to Dayton for their son’s baptism, not realizing that their congregation would be visiting St. Margaret’s that day. No problem. We simply included the baptism as part of our combined Holy Eucharist at our sister parish. Even though we were in a different location than we had planned, we rejoiced that even more members of our one church were present to promise to do all in their power to support that child in his life in Christ.
The bonds established by our decade of shared worship and fellowship have extended beyond those two Sundays a year. Members of the two congregations have come to know and relate to one another as members of one church in the neighborhoods where they live, in the places where they work, in the stores where they shop, and in various diocesan meetings, committees and initiatives. They have called upon one another when opportunities for shared service have arisen or when they have recognized that someone in the other church has experience and gifts that can benefit the wider community.
They have also built on their relationship to help, at least in some small way, to heal the divides within the community; entering repeatedly into each other’s church home and coming to know one another as sisters and brothers. They look for other opportunities to further those bonds as well. Several years ago, for example, when many churches in the diocese were viewing and discussing the movie “Traces of the Trade,” St. Mark’s chose not to schedule its own viewing. Instead, they arranged for interested members of the parish to view and discuss it together with the people of St. Margaret’s to enable everyone to gain insights from one another.
When they gather for shared worship, the host priest presides at the Eucharist, while his visiting colleague provides the sermon. This spring, the two congregations concluded ten years of this unique relationship by worshiping together at St. Mark’s. In his sermon that day, Fr. Ben gave thanks for the bonds of love that have joined them together. But, at the same time, he challenged those in attendance to continue to go out and put the love of Christ into action by extending it to those in need in our community and in our world. “Where is the love?” he asked them, in the society and world in which we live?
For ten years – and counting! – these two congregations have experienced that love of God in Christ, a love that joins us together as one church. And it is that same love that impels us to go out together in Christ’s name to heal a hurting world.
The Rev. Mike Kreutzer serves as rector at St. Mark’s, Dayton.