jeff-ericThis past Sunday, I experienced something I had never done before: preaching at a non-Episcopal church.

You may think this is extremely strange, and I freely admit, it is out of the norm. I was invited by the people of Christian Valley Church in Cataula to preach at their 11:00am service. Christian Valley is a church that is Baptist at it’s roots, and has recently dropped “Baptist” in order to be more inclusive to people in their area.

So how did I end up there?

A number of months ago, a member of Christian Valley, Garvin Gourie was at a wedding and met Vicky Partin, the missioner from Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministries (CVEM). During their conversation, Garvin expressed interest in wanting to “team up” with a congregation in Harris County that was not traditionally African-American. Vicky mentioned St. Nicholas and our desire to grow, connect, and be open to all. So Garvin called me and we began to talk. Over many months, Garvin and his pastor, the Rev. Eric Seldon, Graham Horne, and I met to discuss ways we might bring our very different congregations together. Not only are we attempting to bridge cultural divides, but also denominational ones!

First, we all decided to try and engage in an outreach project together. We talked to Katherine Johnson and Connie Blackmon, who are champions for the Ferst Foundation literacy program, charged with helping children receive free books in order to increase literacy in our county. We hope to join with Christian Valley in spreading the word about this program. This is a project that we are still working on and hope to do together in the near future.

Next, Pastor Eric invited me to preach at Christian Valley. I hope to invite him to do the same at St. Nicholas soon.

Now I’ve preached in African-American Episcopal churches and I’ve attended services at Baptist and non-denonminational churches, but I have never preached anywhere other than an Episcopal church! So I was more than a bit nervous, being in front of a crowd that was unfamiliar and not used to hearing from an white, Episcopal priest. Doing new things is extremely uncomfortable.

The service was drenched in music. From old-timey Gospel hymns to contemporary and soulful praise music, we clapped and danced to the beat of God’s rhythm. As my 5-year-old Tai said, “We jammed out in that church!”

After praying prayers and hearing Scripture (which we do a lot in our service!), I was invited to the pulpit. Garvin visited St. Nicholas a while back and noticed that my sermons were only 15 minutes long, as opposed to a longer one in his church. So I had quite a feat before me in not only holding their attention, but drawing it out for at least 30 minutes!

I talked about how God takes our scarcity and grows it into abundance, drawing from the story of the widow in 1 Kings 17 and the widow from the Gospel of Mark who puts in two tiny coins. I related it to our hope in a better world, where there are no separations nor divisions. I got plenty of Amens!

I was so thankful to look out in the congregation and see the faces of the Butzons, the Johnsons, Graham, and my sweet family in the back row. Talk about support!

After the service, I was embraced with hugs and handshakes. Whether I did a good job or not, I could never tell because I was so welcomed by their community. I’ve only been in one warmer church, and that is St. Nicholas.

So where will this lead us? I’m sure there are folks in our congregation and the surrounding community that are uncomfortable that we’re stepping into unknown territory like this. We’re not seeking to combine our congregations, but rather share the gifts of community that God has given both of us. St. Nicholas has something unique and wonderful to share with Christian Valley and vice versa. Is it uncomfortable? Definitely. Is it exciting? Absolutely.

One more funny story: At Christian Valley, we also had communion, which was celebrated much differently than we do at St. Nicholas. A tray is passed around and everyone gets a piece of bread and a tiny cup of grape juice. My 3-year-old Bronwyn exclaimed after the service, “I loved that wine!”

I wonder what they’ll say when they taste our wine.