Seeking a wider view of a church's identity

Program: A Columbia congregation explores its faith and how to express it in everyday life.

March 02, 2001|By Diane Reynolds | Diane Reynolds,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A priest reminded Catholics of their Jewish roots. Church members wrote their memories and dreams on tissue-paper leaves.

In such nontraditional ways, nearly 200 members of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church participated this week in "Be Church," a spiritual renewal leading to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a church, locally and globally.

Be Church is part of a Lenten program aimed at putting faith into action, said Elizabeth Reder, a member of the congregation, which meets at Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills interfaith centers. "Before we can `do church,' we have to be strengthened," she said. "We're trying to deepen our own commitment and nourish it so we in turn have the courage to act on our faith."

Columbia "is holy ground," said keynote speaker Monsignor Raymond G. East of Nativity Roman Catholic Church in Washington, who addressed those who attended the event Sunday at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. "It was an experiment we heard about all over the country. In this place grew up a brand new city, and this parish was established ... to be different from the way parishes usually are established."

To Mary Ann Bachmeier, a resident for about 15 years, "Columbia seemed so ideal. I love the walking areas ... the nonstrip malls ... the beauty of it," she said during a workshop. "It's got soul."

Tom McCarthy agreed: "The beauty of Columbia helps your soul," he said.

The concept of integration attracted Jim Sheridan and his wife, Cathy, both Columbia pioneers, to the city in 1968, as did the "promise of city conveniences ... most of them never realized."

What has been realized, discussion participants said, is a strong interfaith community. They said interactions with Protestant and Jewish clergy have been enriching. Bachmeier refers to Rabbi Martin Siegel, rabbi emeritus of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, as a "treasure."

"More ecumenical involvement doesn't dilute my denominational faith but strengthens it," McCarthy said. "A better understanding of someone else's religion helps me understand my own and focus on the core, the essentials."

"A very open church" is what Cathy Sheridan finds. "We felt our parish was at least five years ahead ... We did things like letting out balloons for the Ascension."

In his address, East worked to build bridges among different faiths by highlighting the Jewish roots of Christianity. In recounting the Jewish struggle from Abraham through Ezra, East emphasized, "This is our story, our Hebrew heritage. We are at the very foundation Jewish."

East said in an interview after the address that "we should revere our Jewish sisters and brothers who gave us everything we have, including Jesus. We can't understand church until we understand the great debt we owe the Jews." Saying that it has taken the Catholic Church a long time to overcome anti-Semitism in its tradition, East challenges Catholics to have a "wider understanding of what it means to be church."

During small-group workshops, Be Church participants were given colored pieces of tissue paper cut in the shape of leaves, and a cardboard tube. Church memories, hopes and dreams were written on the leaves, which were inserted into the tube, sticking out to look like leaves on a tree. It was a gathering of ideas, a symbol of a blossoming future.

Grace Lee remembered being enriched by taking her children to Sunday school and learning that "in an ecumenical environment, politics is less important than your relationship with God." Bachmeier commented on St. John's as a church in which "people really want to be here. It's so refreshing and rejuvenating."

Church members said the event was part of what makes St. John the Evangelist parish unique. "Catholics don't usually do this kind of thing," Lucy Evelyn said. "This is very good for Catholics."

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