Neighborly church exchange leads to religious insight Episcopalians, Baptists swap pastors, choirs

April 29, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

The Episcopalians couldn't quite bring themselves to sway to the music, though they did manage to shout out a few responses to the minister. The Baptists weren't positive the Episcopalian minister had dismissed them, accustomed as they are to a triumphant recessional.

St. Thomas' Episcopal, a mostly white Towson church, traded ministers and choirs yesterday with Mount Olive Baptist, a black Towson church, in an experiment in neighborliness that crossed religious and racial lines.

Stereotypes were confirmed, but with loving appreciation: "Of course, we're more sedate," Pam Nickerson said, putting it in perfectly Episcopalian terms: "Our worship is intrinsic. Theirs is extrinsic."

The Episcopalians wore tweeds and pearls. The Baptists had stylishly cut suits and eye-catching hats of bright red and blue.

"They're restrained," said Eddie Banks, a Mount Olive choir member who was wearing one gold earring. "We let ourselves go."

The morninglong exchange accomplished exactly what the two churches were seeking.

"We go to school together, we work together and we go to the malls together," said Jim Forman, a Baptist from Mount Olive. "But on Sundays we go to our own separate churches."

And sometimes, within those churches, people forget to look out, said Mr. Forman's wife, Emma, who is president of the Mount Olive Spiritual Choir. They forget they're praying to the same God. "Sometimes we don't know what's behind that church wall," she said.

"There's only one heaven," Mr. Forman said. "We're all going together. We've got to start preparing down here because we're going to be together up there."

Worshiping together, they found themselves praising each other, for their differences as much as their similarities.

"I feel like it was a real gift," said Mrs. Nickerson, a St. Thomas' member, "because it was so different."

Episcopalians, Vickie Sappe said of her church, are more reserved, more conservative. "No swaying," she said.

"We express it," said Mr. Banks, from the Mount Olive choir. "We're emotional." He tried hard to follow as the St. Thomas congregation sang one of their own hymns. It was work, a cerebral message, with lots of thees and thous and leadeths, and rhyming lines. "Maybe it was a little bland," he conceded later.

At Mount Olive, the St. Thomas choir sang sweetly, eyes looking at their books, their song a heavenly harmony of soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

"They follow their notes," said Lucia Pankey, a Mount Olive member.

"Their voices are beautiful," said Jacqueline Cromwell. "They're more blended. In gospel music you have to hold your own."

Over at St. Thomas', the Mount Olive choir belted out their hymns. There was no mistaking the message. Jackie Hill, the choir director, stood before them, arms swooping upward as if she would personally lift each word heavenward. Her outstretched fingers vibrated, as if grasping each full, throbbing note.

"One more day," the choir sang, "one more day. I thank the Lord for one more day." Other phrases on the theme were woven in and out, soloists embroidered on the message, with undercurrents of "I'll start over," grateful for one more day of Christian life. Again the whole choir sent the song trumpeting out, "One more day." Every single syllable of every single word could be felt.

The Rev. Avery N. Penn, Mount Olive's pastor, used the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord Is My Shepherd," for his sermon. He repeated lines from the psalm. He explained the tie between shepherd and sheep. And in a deep voice, he demanded: "Whose shepherd?"

The Episcopal congregation, perhaps to their own surprise, found themselves responding in clear, firm voices: "MY shepherd."

Mr. Penn ended the service promptly, after an hour, in deference to the Episcopalians. "Usually I go about three times as long," he said. "Usually I'm more involved emotionally and physically. We're not time conscious." (Mount Olive's pews are comfortably padded. St. Thomas's are unyielding hardwood.) After the service, the Episcopal members breakfasted on scrambled eggs and bacon with the Mount Olive minister and choir. "It was good fellowship," Mr. Penn said, and an ideal celebration of Baltimore County's Good Neighbor Week, which ends this weekend.

The two churches are 2.8 miles apart. St. Thomas' sits on a grassy landscape just outside the Beltway, on Providence Road. Mount Olive sits on a busy corner on York Road, just inside the Beltway. They're both red brick, with peaked roofs and white steeples.

By yesterday afternoon, they felt just as close inside as they look on the outside.

"I used to think being a neighbor was living nearby," the Episcopal minister, the Rev. Charles Cloughen Jr., told the Mount Olive congregation. "Now I know what it means. You worship a little different -- but it's the same Lord."

He preached about how the god of materialism was destroying values. Yesterday, he saw some being preserved. He saw neighbors being neighbors. "We're walking the walk," he said in an exultant voice to the Baptists.

"His sermon is more contemporary than our minister's," Mrs. Pankey said. "Our minister stays with the scriptures. And our music is more contemporary. They come together and blend more."

Both congregations said they wanted to do it again. "All churches preach about being good neighbors," Mr. Cloughen said. "We're doing it."

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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