Ec·u·men·ism (ek’yoo mә niz’m), n. 1. The ecumenical movement among Christian churches 2. The principles or practice of promoting cooperation or better understanding among different religious faiths.
That, anyway, is Webster’s definition (Noah Webster was an ardent Christian who might have had his problems with ecumenism.) It’s a nice thought. But it’s hard enough getting the two biggest local Catholic churches together for anything (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Palm Coast has some 2,200 member families, Santa Maria del Mar on beach-side has 1,600). Imagine getting Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, Methodists and Seventh-Day Adventists under the same roof, singing and praising God together.
Leave it to Chau Phan, a retired professor of political science from New Jersey’s Rider University—and a Vietnamese immigrant who remembers Saigon in its French days—to pull it off. Almost, anyway.
He’s no priest. He’s just a devout Catholic who believes in ecumenism, and he spent the last several years trying to bring as many churches together in more than symbolic union. He finally managed it after tireless negotiations and visits to 14 churches. “This is a calling that I was impelled to do,” Phan said.
- Church on the Rock (Interdenominational)
- First United Methodist Church of Bunnell
- Palm Coast Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
- Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church
- Seventh Day Adventist Church of Palm Coast
- St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church
Saturday evening (June 4) at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach, and for the first time in Flagler’s history, pastors, musicians and congregations from six churches and five denominations (one of them non-denominational), will join together for a two-and-a-half-hour program of song, music and celebratory worship in the name of unity. (See the full program.) Anybody and everybody’s welcome, non-Christians, agnostics, atheists and druids included. It’s for a good cause beyond church walls, too. Admission is free, but donations will be welcome, as all proceeds will go to Flagler’s Habitat for Humanity, and the building of a new home for a family in need.
“It is the first time that we have come together in this way and of this magnitude in our community,” Cindy Ser, Santa Maria’s parish manager, said. “In the past we’ve tried to put together events of this sort, and we were not entirely successful.” She credits Phan’s persistence and Santa Maria’s Rev. Al Esposito, who supported Phan’s efforts. “As we know people answer to the call of invitation, and he has just absolutely talked and talked and talked and served until he could bring the community together.”
It’s a remarkable achievement in a community where church steeples are markers of parochialism, their congregations largely segregated by race and denominations.
And the achievement had its limits: Baptist churches, which represent a significant portion of Flagler’s Christian community, are not participating. They still have a thing about Catholics, theologically and historically (the Catholic church in its bleaker days persecuted Baptists as enthusiastically as it did other non-Catholics), though these days those issues seem dated. Saturday evening’s “Flagler Churches Together” event was designed precisely to break down walls and assumptions. It’s still Phan’s hope to do that in the future. He already has several churches’ pledges to be part of his next planned ecumenical event in January, when the 2011 “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” takes place from Jan. 18-25. That global event is co-sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican-based Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.”
Nervous ministers should take note. This isn’t about preaching one version of Christianity or another, but breaching obstacles and “bypassing all the differences through which we disagree, incidental differences,” Phan said. “We don’t get into that at all.” It’s also in hopes of living up to one of the most maligned verses in the Testament, Old or New: “Father, may they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21). The verse is a distant inspiration for e pluribus unum, the expressly secularized motto of the United States that means “from many, one.” Christian churches, let alone other religions and denominations at large, have been somewhat less successful than the United States in realizing desired unity.
Phan didn’t extend the invitation to non-Christian organizations such as Palm Coast’s synagogue or the county’s small community of Muslims, who don’t yet have a mosque here (the mosque of note in the region is Jacksonville’s rather large Islamic Center of Northeast Florida, which has been in the news recently.) Phan’s reason: he wants to focus on Christian unity, which is its own challenge.
But Flagler has something like an ecumenical council: The Flagler Area Ministerial Association, which includes Baptists and Rabbi Merrill Shapiro. The association also has its own challenges of trying to keep all denominations represented: political circles are just as pronounced on religious councils as anywhere else, especially today. For everyday realizations of ecumenism’s ideals, however, churches like to refer to their outreach ministries, which extend helping hands and dollars through the community regardless of the recipient’s denominational stripes.
One such ministry is Bruce Laurent’s. He and Marlene Laurent are co-pastors of Bunnell’s Church on the Rock. They’ll be at Santa Maria tomorrow evening. Bruce Laurent, a recovered drug addict and alcoholic who spent 18 years negotiating the harder rocks of the South Bronx before moving to Spring Valley, N.Y., then down to Bunnell 20 years ago, spends several days a week at the Flagler County jail, either ministering to inmates or ensuring that they get the materials or clerics they want if they’re of a different religion or denomination. “I become a friend to them,” Laurent said. “I don’t act like a moral policemen or preach to them. I become a friend to them and meet their needs anyway.”
Laurent, a Hebrew Christian, doesn’t brook much deviation from the way to salvation as he sees it, however. “Jesus is the only way,” he says. “We have different doctrines but there’s one savior. We have different buildings but there’s one lord, and we have different ways of worship but there’s one spirit.”
Those words have their resonance inside Christian church walls. But they may be limited by those same walls when it comes to ecumenism’s broader definition.