Gilbert Washington is a pastor at St. Paul Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in South Bend, Ind.
When we started, it wasn’t so much joining with Kern Road, but the idea of doing ministry across denominational lines, doing ministry across racial lines. As providence would have it, we had an opportunity to do some work in ministry with Kern Road. I do say “providence,” because I feel it was providential. I think it was providential that André grew up in Nashville and I went to school there. We knew some of the same people.
Joining and being with Kern has afforded us some unique ways of doing ministry. It represents, for me, what the kingdom of God should be about. The folks at Kern have introduced to us the whole idea of peace as a major part of ministry, how you go about seeking peace and forming relationships through the process of talking and sharing, accepting and challenging each other. One day I was writing some sermons and showed them to my wife. She said, “This is a peace sermon.”
I find a lot of my sermons have those things in them now.
Dr. Vincent McCutcheon, who was my mentor in ministry and worked out of a United Methodist church in Nashville, Tenn., that both André’s father and I attended at one time, would call me and ask, “What are you doing in ministry?” We’d talk about the idea of peace. He said, “Gilbert, that’s hard ministry.” I smiled, because I know that anything worth having is worth working for. If Dr. McCutcheon said it was hard, then it was good. We continue to pursue peace and partnerships because it’s worth pursuing.
People in our church now are in programs of peace, sharing with each other in what peace means for individuals and groups and how it allows us to engage other churches.
André and I will go places together and people will say, “You guys are kind of alike.” When I share with people across the nation that we do ministry with Kern, it opens doors. The heart of it is our ministry with these common elements. But part of the challenge is the process, which tend to be slow and mundane. In our history as Baptists, we are more praxis-oriented, getting out and doing things. Instead, we found ourselves sitting down, sitting down, sitting down, listening, talking, listening some more. We wondered when we were going to do something. How were we going to do it? Rosa Perkins in our congregation finally said, “You just do it. Start doing it.”
This continues to be a challenge: How much do you process things and how much do you engage in praxis ministry, ministry like midnight walks praying through the neighborhood, the tutoring program, other action-oriented things.
There are theological differences in our churches, but we don’t talk about those things, per se. We all have our issues and struggles, but we look at something that is larger – the kingdom of God that God has entrusted to the church. We feel it is a privilege and we look to find something good.
André lives near our church. One day, I was going to get a haircut and he was outside playing ball. How do you make a difference in the community? You open up your heart, open up your house and you go out with the kids and play ball. There were these kids of all different races coming together to learn and to play ball. It was one of the best moments of my life.
And it’s because of that kind of respect and admiration that we have for each other that we keep this ministry going.
We need each other
André Gingerich Stoner is pastor of missions at Kern Road Mennonite Church in South Bend, Ind., and director of interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA.
For nearly eight years, Kern Road Mennonite Church has had a partnership with St. Paul Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. The congregations are similar in many ways. We are roughly the same size, with a 40- or 50-year history. We have members from across the economic spectrum, but both congregations have numerous professionals in our membership. At one time the local school superintendent was a member at St. Paul and the assistant superintendent was a member at Kern.
Both congregations have a sense of call to be engaged in our communities and making a difference in people’s lives, Kern as a predominantly white congregation in the Mennonite tradition and St. Paul as a predominantly black congregation in the Baptist tradition.
Our partnership grew out of personal relationships, the common desire to be in ministry in our community, and the sense that we need each other. It has involved pulpit exchanges, joint workshops and visits in each other’s homes. The core of our partnership has been a weekly tutoring program at St. Paul, presently directed by a Kern member, with volunteers from both churches. We have shared in public witness including neighborhood prayer walks, prayers at murder sites and protests against war.
Our prayer walks were on Friday nights from 9:30 p.m. to midnight in a neighborhood near St. Paul where many Kern Roaders have lived. The area has often seen violence. As we walked together, some Kern Roaders brought experiences from their ministry of presence, while some St. Paul members spoke of family or school connections with people we met. We’d gather beforehand to prepare ourselves through prayer and to train for responses to difficult situations. We wore hats that said “Spread the Peace,” made available through a Mennonite grant; Kern Roaders often thought of this as a peace witness.
In encounters with youth or street people, St. Paul members were not hesitant to share their faith. We complemented each other to have a more holistic presence. And an interracial team of walkers and prayers in and of itself was a witness, aside from the way our gifts and experiences strengthened each other.
The first time I preached at St. Paul, I decided to use a sermon I had preached earlier at Kern. It was entitled “But Why a City?” and was a reflection on Revelation 21 – that this Biblical image of heaven was a transformed and renewed city coming down from heaven invading our world. My Kern experience had not prepared me for preaching at St. Paul.
While I preached there was feedback from the congregation. My friend, the Rev. Gilbert Washington, sat behind and beside me punctuating my sermon with shouts of “Amen” and “Uh-huh.” When I made a particularly challenging point he’d say, “Watch it now.” As a preacher, I had a sense that people were really listening
A choir from Kern had come along to sing during the worship. Afterwards one of the Kern Roaders told me, “You really should preach that sermon at Kern.” I told her that I already had! Clearly, listening to the sermon in the way that our brothers and sisters at St. Paul did had helped her hear things she hadn’t heard before.
We entered into this relationship with St. Paul because we discovered that we need each other. We are each one part of the body of Christ, with many gifts and rich experiences. But we are incomplete. We need each other to be more whole, to hear the gospel in fresh ways, to be more faithful. We have much to learn from each other and much to offer each other. That is why we seek relationship with Christians of other traditions: We are one small but important part of the body of Christ; we give and receive gifts to help each other be more faithful to Jesus Christ, our common head.
I think Mennonite congregations in urban settings are particularly well-suited to build interchurch relations. Kern Road, for example, is the only Mennonite church in South Bend. Almost by necessity, nearly every ministry we are involved with outside our walls is done in close cooperation with a church from another tradition. Not only do we benefit from the gifts and experiences of others, but this helps us remember that God’s project is not building an institution, but furthering the kingdom.
Urban congregations will also often have many members who come from outside the Mennonite world. They may be particularly well suited to build bridges and partnerships with Christians from other traditions.
Building relationships with Christians from other traditions is not always easy. We may be challenged in ways that make us uncomfortable. There may be times we are called to challenge understandings and practices that we believe are outside the will of God. We will be able to participate in some kinds of partnerships but not in others. But as we wrestle with these challenges, we trust that God will lead and the Spirit will work as we seek together to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.