I am neither a theologian nor an ordained minister, and I was called late in life (at the age of 68) to work for ecumenism. For probably the last fifty or so years, i.e. since my student days, I usually read the Gospel by John chapters 13-17 on Holy Thursday night after I came home from the liturgy. I first started reading it in French under the heading “La prière sacerdotale de Jésus” (“Jesus’ priestly prayer”). Two passages from the Gospel according to John struck me after my retirement in Palm Coast: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (John 15:16 NIV) and “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21 NIV)
These words haunted me. The call was persistent. Here I am a minority retiree in Palm Coast, what can I do? But the Lord is relentless in his calling. He hit me on the inside each time I heard the song “Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord? I have heard You calling in the night. I will go Lord, if You lead me. I will hold Your people in my heart.” And elsewhere, there was another version of the song: “Here I am, Lord. I’ve come to do your will. Make of me what pleases you. Here I am. Here I am, Lord.”
Then, there was this urging by St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, who is my mother’s and my wife’s baptismal patron saint:
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which He looks with compassion on this world,
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
And the kind of ecumenism I was called to do is grassroots ecumenism. It was a call I resisted, as it was a domain of thought and action foreign to me.
Grassroots ecumenism is establishing relations among people of different Christian denominations who already are neighbors, co-workers, and friends, but now learn to speak to each other about what they would like to know about each other’s religious beliefs, practices, and activities in a respectful and receptive way. That means first of all seeing in anyone who is a baptized Christian to be a brother/sister in Christ, as seen in this depiction of 1 Corinthians 12:27 here.
First to be overcome are the preconceptions of what each person thinks s/he knows about another Christian tradition’s beliefs, practices, and activities are true. It is safe to say that many Christians do not know their own church’s belief system very well, and are generally misinformed about what other Christians believe.
2. Ecumenism at the grassroots: Flagler Beach and Flagler County, Florida
I began to learn as much about ecumenism and Christian Unity as possible, and in 2006 I learned that in 2008 “The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” will observe its 100th anniversary. So during Holy Week 2006, I shared with Phyllis Rotunno — the earliest and most steady supporter of the Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church website which I started upon my retirement — my wish to do something for Christian Unity at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach, Florida. The two of us have been trying to get an opportunity to talk to our then pastor, Fr. John Tetlow, until one day in 2007, after Fr. Tetlow had an operation on his foot, and he was was resting immobilized on the new rectory entranceway during a parish picnic. I told a wide-eyed Phyllis something like this: “This is a good time. We got him as a captive audience. Let’s go talk to him about organizing The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January 2008.” We did, and I submitted to him my written proposal dated October 25, 2007. He said yes, and even volunteered a keynote speaker, his own surgeon, Dr. Steven C. Bower, who impressed him greatly as a deep-rooted Christian. So that’s how it began! Phyllis and I formed a committee, and did a lot of brainstorming. That was how the Christian Unity ministry at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church at Flagler Beach, Florida, was born.
The words of the late Cardinal Mercier really struck me as to how we should begin:
In order to unite with one another, we must love one another;
in order to love one another, we must know one another;
in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.
This is what Pope Francis refers to as encounter and dialogue.
As a lifelong Catholic, I have never been to any non-Catholic church. But I decided to attend as many non-Catholic services in Flagler County as possible. I visited fifteen churches. Some churches, I visited two or three times, and I spoke to the various pastors, face-to-face, many times, and followed up by email messages, but many times there was no response of any kind. It was most discouraging.
For the Week of Prayer of 2008 and 2009 evenings of Ecumenical Prayer and Praise, it was just the two choirs of Santa Maria del Mar under the direction of Mary Ann Ahearn, and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church’s choir under the direction of Kermit Allison, who responded. Many times, I wanted to quit. I did not want to be a voice in the wilderness, and I felt like an unwilling prophet. I went to my pastor, Fr. Al Esposito, and he and his parish advisers encouraged me to go on. Cindy Ser, the parish manager, even gave a new mission: “You are now the ambassador of Santa Maria del Mar to the Christian communities of Flagler county.” That’s a challenge!
The Christian Unity ministry at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church
All successful enterprises began with a vision and a mission, but to carry it out, teamwork is necessary and indispensable. The Christian Unity ministry at Santa Maria del Mar (SMdM) Catholic Church started with Phyllis Rotunno and me, but over the years many SMdM parishioners joined us: Mary Olivett, Gail Abbott, Lynne and Mike McCabe, Ronnie Lyons, Ronaele Bowman and others. The Holy Spirit works in surprising, unpredictable ways to help me in my ministry. In 2009, an errant email by me somehow landed in the mailbox of Karyn Jacobs, a person I did not know, who became my main helper in organizing the Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song events in 2010 and 2011. When Karyn and Ronnie left to found another ministry, I asked Lynne McCabe to be my deputy leader. Then Mary Olivett brought in Jim and Janice Rhode. In 2014, I asked Jim Rhode to join Lynne also as a deputy leader to allow me more time to devote to new diocesan tasks and to prepare for a smooth leadership transition. In 2015, David and Katie Rogers joined us. In 2016, Anne and Bob Hile, Kathy Kiley, and Marlene Trizis joined our ministry.
So I continued to visit churches. For 2010, we decided to move the event to June 5, 2010, and called it “Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song”. Then, in January 2010, during the The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Reverend Gillard Glover of the First (AME) Church of Palm Coast called me, and wanted to come over to Santa Maria one evening with his four singers. With very little lead time, we were treated to a wonderful session of songs and an inspiring sermon. His church was so welcoming to me each time I visited the First Church of Palm Coast. He even referred to me as “Bro”. It’s an honor!
There were six choirs participating in the 2010 Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song on June 5, 2010 at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church. We had about 500 to 550 in attendance. The response from the audience was great.
For the 2011 Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song which was held at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church on January 22, 2011, from 6 to 8:30 PM, the church which can seat 1,600 was about half full, so the attendance was estimated at around 800. (Note: The reason why events had to be held at these two Catholic Churches was because they have the largest seating capacity of all churches in Flagler County, 1,150 seats at Santa Maria del Mar, and 1,500 seats at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. We look forward to holding future events in other Christian churches.)
From the responses received, I believe that we were then at take-off point. For the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2012 and 2013, the challenge was how to package songs within the time frame of two and a half hours.
Then in 2012, after reading Dr. Steve Harmon‘s book Ecumenism Means You, Too, I asked his permission to reprint in my various websites a synopsis of chapter 4 about “10 Things You Can Do for the Unity of the Church”. I have never met Dr. Harmon who is a leading ecumenical Baptist professor of theology at Gardner-Webb University. Not only he gave me permission, but emailed me this: “I’ve made a post on my blog calling attention to that use of the material and to the encouraging work that you, your parish, and the Flagler Churches Together group are doing: http://ecclesialtheology.blogspot.com/2012/08/10-things-you-can-do-for-unity-of.html .
One reader of Steve Harmon’s blog was Gerald Stover, an ecumenical Mennonite from Bethlehem, PA, who in turn introduced me to Bridgefolk.net, to the work of Focolare, to Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches and a member of the board of the North American Association of Ecumenists, and most recently to Rev. Dr. John H. Armstrong who is president of “ACT3 Network [which] empowers leaders and churches to engage in missional partnerships within the whole body of Christ.”
In order to do grassroots ecumenism, we must first be grounded in one’s own faith, then learn about other Christian traditions and practices, then meet each other by visiting another person’s church, and invite the other person to visit our own church. And go with a receptive attitude which means appreciating in other Christians what they do better than us in what we also do but not as well. Personally I have visited many churches where I was received in brotherly love, spoke to pastors and congregants, and invited them to send choirs, musicians and singers to our ecumenical prayer and praise service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
For example, how many Catholics have a well-worn Bible that they have read and annotated and know crucial passages by heart, citing chapter and verse as many evangelicals do. Take for example a bedrock Scriptural passage to Catholics. How many Catholics can identify its source as Matthew 16:18? “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The only way Christians can talk to one another starts with knowing what Scripture says about unity.
Then get up your courage to go to a church which seems to be foreign territory to you. Pray for courage and to have an open heart. Go for example to an African-American church and see/hear/feel the singing, as the worshippers sing as they mean it, as they believe it, as they live it, body, soul, emotion, gesture, even tears.
Receptive ecumenism means what zeal, devotion, attitude we can learn from other Christians to bring to our worship, and what other Christians, if they come to church with us, can learn about the Catholic church by seeing us in worship.
Grassroots ecumenism to me means that I don’t feel being an outsider or spectator in my neighbor’s church even though I do not belong to it, and that my guest will feel at ease at my church even though s/he does not quite understand everything that is going on. Respectful curiosity is a start, then come questions and explanations, and it is hoped that everyone seeks to “speak the truth in love” when they speak about their own church and the other churches as well.
This is the dialogue we should have, not to convert others to our way, but so that we are convinced that other Christians are seeking Christ and walking toward Christ too as we do. All spiritual ecumenism starts with inner conversion of oneself, to see and love Christ in other Christians, and to acknowledge our deficient knowledge of other Christian denominations, and even worse our prejudices based upon incomplete understanding of the origins and causes of different Christian traditions. To me, Christian Unity means that in the end, we meet each other and love each other in Christ in spite of differences mostly in tradition and practice, as we already share our fundamental beliefs as expressed in the creeds we all recite. Therefore until theologians can resolve our differences so that we can all physically share the same Body of Christ in communion, this is our limited communion, that is union together in Christ in aspirations and in working together to mend the broken Body of Christ.
And these days, grassroots ecumenism is an imperative, as many married couples and couples engaged to be married belong to different Christian traditions, and they must unlearn things about each other’s supposed beliefs and practices, and learn to respect and appreciate the other’s correct beliefs and practices, and raise their children accordingly. These days, practical ecumenism starts with an ecumenical family.
If we believe that Jesus loves us, then we must love one another, because as the Apostle John wrote: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) If you are Christian, and if you hear someone says bad things about another Christian church, ask yourself “What would Jesus do in this situation?”
In Flagler County, Florida, concrete grassroots ecumenism means church congregations working with one another in projects dealing with poverty, hunger, and homelessness.
The cold-weather shelter, based in the First United Methodist Church of Bunnell (FUMCB), takes in homeless persons when the temperature dips below 40 degrees, has teams of volunteers from other churches as well, including many teams from Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach. FUMCB is a small congregation with a big heart, a brave pastor, the Rev. Beth Gardner and a most dedicated parishioner, Carla Traister, who is the shelter’s director of operations. They have endured many verbal attacks from neighborhood people for running the shelter.
Another example of grassroots ecumenism is Family Promise of Flagler, an operation involving a dozen of rotating host churches and many more supporting congregations committed to providing the tools families need to end the cycle of homelessness and remain self-sufficient. (Unfortunately, Flagler Family Promise has ceased operations in 2014 due to lack of financial resources and not enough host churches.)
And there is the well-known Flagler Habitat for Humanity which “is an ecumenical Christian housing ministry whose mission is to eliminate substandard housing from Flagler County, and to make simple, decent, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action.”
At the worship level, we have now in Flagler County an established tradition of church choirs and musicians coming together to sing and praise our Lord Jesus Christ during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Over the years, these churches and/or pastors have participated in Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song: Church on the Rock, Palm Coast/Bunnell; First (AME) Church of Palm Coast; First Baptist Church of Palm Coast; First United Methodist Church of Bunnell; Mount Calvary Baptist Church of Palm Coast; Palm Coast United Methodist Church; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church; St. Mark by the Sea Lutheran Church; St. Thomas Episcopal Church; Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church of Flagler Beach; Seventh Day Adventist Church of Palm Coast.
The two theme songs that we always sing are
- And they’ll know we are Christians / By our love, By our love / Yes, they’ll know we are Christians / By our love
- We shall overcome, We shall overcome, / We shall walk hand in hand / We shall live in peace. (It is a freedom march anthem that we have adopted to mean that we must obey the Lord Jesus’ commandment “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34) so that together we can overcome our religious, cultural, racial, ethnic, economic prejudices, preconceptions and misperceptions about each other.)
We sang and prayed for all our Christian brothers and sisters, using this litany for unity:
Leader: Lord, you are the source of love, peace and reconciliation! All: Gather together your separated people.
Leader: For Christian Churches and Communities, that they may be faithful witnesses to the Gospel. All: Gather together your separated people.
Leader: For church leaders everywhere that they may work together and promote unity among Christians. All: Gather together your separated people.
Leader: Across all our mutual ignorance, prejudice and hostility. All: Gather together your separated people.
Leader: Across all our differences of thought, outlook, and religious allegiance. All: Gather together your separated people.
Leader: O God, for your greater glory. All: Gather together your separated people.
Leader: That we may lift our voices as one. All: Gather together your separated people.
Leader: For our Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering persecution and death throughout the world, because they profess the name of Jesus. All: Gather together your separated people.
Leader: Together we pray
All: God Our Father: We come here before you heeding the prayer of Jesus / that his followers be one. We come here to sing and pray together in Jesus’ name. We ask you to bless us with deepening faith,/ enduring hope,/ and selfless love. Give us hearts ready to find you and love you/ in all our brothers and sisters who profess to be followers of Jesus. And the courage and generosity to work together / for your kingdom and your glory. Together, we pray in Jesus’ Name. / Amen.
After we have sung dozens of songs, we then form large circles around the pews and joining hands we say together the Lord’s prayer before we leave.
Love donations at these events have gone to Flagler Habitat for Humanity, the Cold-weather shelter, the Custodian of Holy Sites in the Holy Land, twice to Flagler Family Promise, and to the suffering Christians in the Middle East.
My heart is full of thanks to God for the breaking down of perceived barriers among Christian brothers and sisters in Flagler County. And I thank the pastors and the music ministers who have responded to my call. It’s not my work, but it is God’s work and command that we carry out Jesus’ testamentary prayer that we be one, as He and the Father are One.
We now look forward to Saturday, January 21, 2017, when the Eighth Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song will take place at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach with the participation of EIGHT churches from 1:00 to 2:45 p.m. There will be a reception afterwards in the church lobby from 2:45 to 3:30 p.m. As usual, attendance is free, but a freewill collection will be made again for suffering Christians in the Middle East.
And with the cooperation of evangelical churches we are looking to the possibility of bringing to Flagler County a Christian rock concert some time in the future.
At the clergy level, Pastor Pam Northrup (who has left Palm Coast in mid-2014 for Raleigh, NC, to be near her parents) of St. Mark by the Sea Lutheran Church in Palm Coast has hosted ecumenical gatherings at her church including a lecture on ecumenism by ELCA Florida-Bahamas bishop emeritus Lavern Franzen during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2011,
and a joint discussion with Fr. Alberto Esposito of Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church on “The Hope for Eternal Life” in 2013.
On January 22, 2014, the Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches, came from Tampa to discuss the recently released joint Lutheran-Catholic document “From Conflict to Communion” as we prepare to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s start of the Reformation. The event is co-sponsored by St. Mark Lutheran and Santa Maria del Mar CC. Pastor Pam Northrup (ELCA), Fr. Al Esposito were the discussants.
The cooperation between Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach and St. Mark by the Sea Lutheran Church continues under the new pastor, Rev. Vince Iocona. In fact, the two sister churches had an ecumenical bus ride in January 2016 from the respective churches in Flagler Beach and Palm Coast to St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Jacksonville for the 3rd Ecumenical Evening Prayer presided over by Bishop Schaefer. Furthermore Bishop Schaefer himself came to Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church and gave a homily at every Mass one weekend in 2016.
Moving to a higher level, on April 15, 2013, Bishop Felipe Estevez appointed Fr. Alberto Esposito and me as Associate Diocesan Ecumenical Officers. In that capacity, we were able to prepare for the first Ecumenical Vespers liturgy which was held at St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica on Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 5:30 p.m. to which Bishop Felipe Estevez invited bishops and leaders of other Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities in northeast Florida to participate. Thanks be to God, it was a great success. See: http://ecumenicalvespers.org/
The Second Ecumenical Evensong was held at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 at 6:00 p.m. and was presided by Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard of the Episcopal Diocese of Florida.
The Third Ecumenical Evening Prayer was held at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Jacksonville on January 25, 2016 at 7:00 PM and was presided over by Bishop Robert G. Schaefer of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Florida and Bahamas Synod.
We are now preparing for the Fourth Ecumenical Vespers at the bishop level in Northeast Florida on Tuesday evening, January 17, 2017 at 6:30 p.m. at St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in Jacksonville, Florida.
It will be hosted by the Rev. Dr. Nicholas G. Louh, Protopresbyter of St. John the Divine and presided over by Bishop Emeritus Demetrios of Xanthos of the Metropolis of Atlanta, Greek Orthodox Church of America.
Instrumental in this successful enterprise are my two pastors of Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church who have permitted and encouraged my work for Christian Unity, namely Fr. John Tetlow in 2007 and 2008, and since 2009, Fr. Alberto Esposito, and the cooperation and the dedicated work of many members of the Christian Unity ministry and the Hospitality ministry at Santa Maria del Mar.
In this work, more hands, voices, and hearts are needed, so I appeal to you, if you are a practicing Christian in Flagler County or the Diocese of St. Augustine in Florida (i.e. in the greater Jacksonville-Gainesville-St. Augustine-Flagler County area, please pray for guidance and come join us in the work of mending the fragmented Body of Christ, one stitch at a time. If I can assist you, your pastor, your congregation in any way, I stand ready to work with you for Christian Unity.
In my work for Christian Unity, to put everything in perspective, I have adopted the Lutheran (ELCA) motto: “God’s work, our hands”. And as the psalmist said in Psalm 127:1 “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
In service of the Lord of Unity,
Chau T. Phan
Palm Coast, June 23, 2013, revised August 26, 2014. Revised December 6, 2016.
Addendum on October 2, 2013:
I just came back from the annual conference of the North American Academy of Ecumenists, Chicago, IL, September 27-29, 2013.
The theme of this year’s conference of the NAAE was “The Emerging Face of Being One: Exploring Various Models of Christian Unity”. The meetings took place at the Churchwide Office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. From my notes, here are some of the words that resonated with me at the conference and which I want to share with you:
- From a wise Benedictine nun to one of the Protestant presenters, Dale Luffman, who was a young man attending a Catholic college “You need to bloom where God has planted you!”
- In ecumenical dialogue, we converse with one another rather than trying to convert one another. As long as we try to love and serve Jesus in all Christians and all the people, we will end up converging in Jesus.
- Dialogue is as Pope John Paul II said is “an exchange of gifts” which is the basis of the newest trend in ecumenism, known as “receptive ecumenism”. What we can learn from fellow Christians, and what we can bring to them from our own Christian tradition.
- The unity we seek is not uniformity, but unity in Christ, allowing for a diversity of modes of discipleship.
- Fr. Crossin of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke about Pope Francis and his emphasis on dialogue, on “a culture of encounter” based on mutual respect and love. And from the very ecumenical Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which also hosts many ecumenical meetings, including meetings of Catholic bishops, the message is that tolerance is not enough, but only through mutual acceptance and searching for common ground in love can there be hope for unity.
Below are further readings on bottom-up grassroots ecumenism that we are fostering in Flagler County and the Diocese of St. Augustine.
Grassroots Ecumenism in the Bigger Picture; Ecumenism from “The Bottom Up” by Gary B. Reierson