By Donald E. Messer*
Swinging and swaying in song, with shouts of joy and waves of clapping, members of Park Hill United Methodist and Temple Micah celebrated a new interreligious covenant bonding church and synagogue in Denver.
The joint worship service on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, Jan. 19, began with a processional. Park Hill’s pastor, the Rev. Eric Smith, carried a cross and Temple Micah’s rabbi, Adam Morris, bore the Torah while Jews and Christians sang “In the midst of new dimensions, in the face of changing ways, who will lead the pilgrim peoples wandering in their separate ways?”
The hymn, penned by the Rev. Julian Rush, reflects a commitment to inclusiveness and justice.
Park Hill, a historically diverse congregation whose membership is about half African-American and half Anglo-American, invited Temple Micah to share its facilities. The church long has championed inclusiveness of all persons regardless of race or sexual orientation.
Temple Micah, affiliated with Reform Judaism, affirms a mission statement reflecting the biblical mandate “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8)
Morris and Smith, along with lay leaders from both communions, signed a formal document, affirming, “We enter covenant with each other with the prayer that our interfaith cooperation will be a blessing to our community, a model for Jewish and Christian interfaith dialogue and cooperation, and an exemplar of a collaboration that honors and cultivates the diversity in our society.”
The language of the covenant, noted Smith, draws extensively from the United Methodist Book of Resolutions on “Called to Be Neighbors and Witnesses: Guidelines for Interreligious Relationships.”
Highlights of the service included the singing of ancient Hebrew chants, traditional African-American spirituals and contemporary United Methodist hymns. Opening the Ark in the altar area, Morris unrolled the sacred Torah, and the Ten Commandments were read in Hebrew, followed by an English translation.
Love of God and neighbor
In his sermon, Smith recited Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, emphasizing the love of God and neighbor. He emphasized “there is no exclusionary provision that allows us to reject other people because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation.”
While the service underscored religious commonalities linking Jews and Christians, no attempt was made to diminish differences. References to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Resurrection were included, along with traditional Jewish prayers and practices.
The congregations did emphasize that what unites them is their acknowledgement that “there is one living God in whom Jews and Christians believe.”
The iconic words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, uttered after marching in Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr., were recited by one member at the close of the jubilant service: “I felt my feet were praying.”
*Messer, president emeritus of The Iliff School of Theology and executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, serves as a consultant to the United Methodist Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships.