Election Day Communion services to help heal the divide
By Tita Parham
|PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/KATHLEEN BARRY/UMNS|
Divided. Polarized. Uncivil.
That is an almost universally accepted description of the political climate in the United States as Nov. 6 approaches and, with it, the elections of a president and other leaders.
But at least 178 United Methodist congregations are joining other churches across the country to offer an alternative on Election Day.
They will offer Communion services designed to remind members and guests â€œthat we are one people in Christ â€¦ that what unites us is far more powerful and real than anything that divides us,â€ said the Rev. Larry Buxton.
Buxton is senior pastor at Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Va., a suburb of the most politicized city in the nation.
His church is one of more than 800 congregations and groups in all 50Â states and the District of Columbia participating in Election Day Communion, an initiative developed by two Mennonite pastors, the Rev. Mark Schloneger and the Rev. Kevin Grasser.
The idea of offering Communion on Election Day occurred to Schloneger during the 2008 presidential election season. Members of the church heÂ served were not talking much about politics inside the church, he said, but they were doing so beyond its four walls.
â€œI felt that, somehow, we needed to be reminded of our unity in Christ, but also of our allegiance to Christ â€¦ because there was a lot of fear going around on what might happen if this person or that person was elected president, â€œ he said. â€œAnd I just felt, wow, if there was a practice of the church that speaks to unity and allegiance and hope, itâ€™s the practice of Communion.â€
â€˜To remind us who we areâ€™
That contemplation led to a Communion service at his church that was positively received. Four years later, Schloneger, Grasser and Ben Irwin, an Episcopal layman, are inviting other churches to do the same.
â€œMy only goal was to call churches to Communion â€¦ to remind us who we are,â€ Schloneger said. â€œBut, I thought, what a great collective witness it would be for those outside of the church â€” on the day when so many of us are captivated by the presidential elections â€“ of a witness to who we say is the Lord and Savior of our lives and where we place our hope for the future.â€
Buxton expressed hope that the service at his church will reaffirm that â€œweâ€™re a congregation that tries to put our unity in Jesus Christ above anything else â€¦ that you can be a Republican and a faithful Christian and you can be a Democrat and a faithful Christian.â€
The 7 p.m. service will be â€œfairly informal and brief,â€ Buxton said. â€œWeâ€™re going to keep it simple with some music, a brief message, Communion and let people go because folks will want to watch election returns.â€
Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla., will serve Communion in the churchâ€™s chapel at 7:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. People canÂ pray there any time between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. On every hour, ministry team members will read Scripture and offer prayer.
â€œI think we share the goals of trying to lift peopleâ€™s attention above the hardline polarization and to remind us that we are Christians first and citizens second,â€ said the Rev. Jim Harnish, senior pastor at Hyde Park. â€œOur commitment to Christ is a higher commitment in our lives than our commitment to any kind of political party or political position.â€
We are family
Harnish says there wonâ€™t be any references to the election. Instead, he said, the focus is prayer.
â€œWe have not loaded it up with anything else,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™ve kept it a clear focus that this is what unites us and that we invite people to be in prayer.
The Rev. Melanie Baker, pastor at Alma United Methodist Church in Alma, Mich., will mention the election during her churchâ€™s service, but in a â€œnonpartisan way.â€
She said she would Â talk about â€œhow we seek the greater good and that we come at that with different understandings of what the greater good is, but when we point to Christ that really is â€¦ the greater good.â€
The liturgy, she added, will focus on unity, with Scripture â€œaround unity in places we disagree.â€
The service will occur after the polls close, she said, so no one will interpret it as a time to â€œgo pray for the candidate we want to win, or weâ€™re going to pray to make a decision about who we vote for. This is an opportunity to say we are all part of the same family, regardless of who we voted for.â€
What particularly resonates with her, she said, is the need to be the church in such a divisive time.
â€œBeing gathered at the table, especially when we do it on election night, seems to me to bind us all together, and we belong at that table in spite of our differences. â€¦ That unites us,â€ she said.
â€œMy hope,â€ she added, â€œis that folks will focus on what unites us rather than what divides because it seems to me that the political rhetoric is so inflammatory and uncivil in these days. Iâ€™m hoping to be a witness to something besides that.â€
Time of healing, recommitment
The country may be divided, Buxton said, but â€œit hasnâ€™t been a painful, divisive campaignâ€ within his church.
The Rev. Morgan Guyton, the churchâ€™s associate pastor, agrees.
â€œWe have people from all over the political spectrum who worship together and serve together, and we really get along pretty well,â€ Guyton said. He also acknowledges it is easy to be caught up the â€œanimosity in our political climateâ€ and said the Communion services offer a time of confession and healing.
â€œWhether weâ€™ve actually born false witness or not, weâ€™ve participated in disrespecting other people who are children of God, whichever side that weâ€™re on,â€ he said. â€œAnd we need to repent of that, and we need to be healed of the spiritual damage thatâ€™s been done to us by being part of a divisive, worldly phenomenon.â€
Guyton and young adults from the Virginia and Washington, D.C., area will lead an ecumenical service at 7 p.m. on Election Day at Sylvan Theater, near the Washington Monument. It will be a candlelight vigil with Communion and prayer for the country.
What resonates most with Guyton is the emphasis on the word â€œrememberâ€ in information posted on the Election Day Communion website, particularly in a blog titled â€œRe-Membering the Dismembered Body ofÂ Christ.â€
â€œItâ€™s re-membering â€” putting back together the body of Christ,â€ he said. â€œAnd thatâ€™s what we need to be doing.â€
â€”Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.