Dwelling together in harmony, amidst differences

A New York City church has welcomed in congregations from other faiths and denominations. This thriving community is marked by hospitality, listening and humility.

The Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew is a large Methodist church in New York City that describes itself as “spiritual, intimate, celebratory, reflective, provocative and inclusive.” A congregation that stayed put during the flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s, the church includes a food pantry, a homeless shelter, a large choir and a professional theater program.

A large banner hanging over the altar reads, “How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.” This verse from Psalm 133 reflects the thriving nature of the church’s community, but not because everyone looks alike, thinks alike or even worships alike.

The nature of the community’s thriving relates in large part to the fact that in addition to their Methodist congregation, SP&SA houses an Ethiopian evangelical church; Iglesia Cristo Vivo, a primarily gay and lesbian Hispanic Church; and B’nai Jeshurun, a Jewish congregation from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

B’nai Jeshurun had suffered a roof collapse, and the ceiling restoration took years to complete. SP&SA welcomed the Jewish congregation into its space. B’Nai Jeshurun has grown so much in its new host site that it is now too big to return to its repaired building, so it lives on in the Methodist church.

In a recent sermon, Duke Chapel’s Associate Dean for Religious Life Christy Lohr Sapp describes this thriving group as having a heart of faith.

“The relationship between these faith communities is a living example,” she writes, “of how pleasing it is when kindred live together in peace. And what a welcome example it can be for us today in the midst of current global realities that are marked by violence, distrust, war and conflict.”

In this setting, a thriving community is marked by difference, hospitality, listening and humility. With these tools, SP&SA is dedicated to being a bridge-builder to its brothers and sisters of other faiths and other denominations.

So, as a regular part of fellowship offerings, SP&SA reaches out to others through events such as an annual Thanksgiving Interfaith worship, interfaith potlucks, interfaith storytelling, pulpit exchanges, film festivals, and a BreakFast prepared for Jewish and Muslim neighbors when Yom Kippur and Ramadan coincided.

Theologian Greg Jones reminds us that what distinguishes Christian leadership from other leadership is its end, its telos -- to cultivate thriving communities that are signs of God’s reign. Surely a sign of God’s reign is when “brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony,” like the banner in the SP&SA sanctuary reads. SP&SA seems to be cultivating that kind of community, by reaching outside its doors and welcoming others in.