“It must belong to the Lutherans.”
That was the immediate response of an Episcopalian family in Cullman, Ala., who unexpectedly found a large processional cross buried in rubble in their backyard.
The cross belongs to Christ Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation not far from the family’s home. A tornado tore through the small town April 27, destroying the church, homes and other property and spreading debris for blocks.
The tornado was part of a larger storm system that ripped through four states, killing more than 190 people in Alabama alone. Thankfully, no one in Cullman was hurt.
Lying in the rubble in the family’s backyard, the cross was a poignant illustration that Jesus Christ is present in the pain and suffering of this community, as well as in those who will help to provide hope and healing.
Within hours of the storm ELCA Disaster Response had committed an initial emergency grant of $10,000 to support local relief efforts. More funds are being committed to support relief efforts in the South.
“We’re also providing a spiritual care specialist who will support local clergy and Lutheran congregations,” says Kevin Massey, who directs this church’s disaster response efforts. The specialist is Deb Halter, a pastor who brings tremendous experience and compassion in caring for communities affected by disasters, Kevin says.
Family recognized the cross
It’s ironic that the processional cross was found and returned by an Episcopalian family, says Darrel Peterson, who works at the ELCA Southeastern Synod office as an assistant to the bishop.
“Cullman is a community in the Deep South, where the majority of folks would not necessarily know what a processional cross is,” he says.
“But being a member of a liturgical church, just like Christ Lutheran Church, the Episcopalian neighbor surmised right away that the cross belongs to Christ (Lutheran),” Darrel says.
The discovery of the processional cross happened a day before the ELCA and The Episcopal Church (USA) formally celebrated the 10th anniversary of their commitment to joint ministry, witness and service. Special worship services in each denomination to honor the full-communion relationship took place May 1.
The ELCA shares full-communion relationships with six churches. Full communion is not a merger between two churches but rather a relationship based on a common confessing of the Christian faith, a mutual recognition of baptism and sharing of the Lord’s Supper.
“We consider ourselves close given our liturgical traditions,” Sandra Niiler says about the relationship between Christ Lutheran and Grace Episcopal Church in Cullman. Sandra is pastor of Christ Lutheran.
Congregations nurture relationship
Within blocks of each other, both congregations nurture an intentional relationship with an annual worship service and monthly gatherings.
On the fourth Tuesday of every month, members of Christ Lutheran visit Grace for a community lunch and musical entertainment.
“The lunch is for anyone in need, but it’s also a time for fellowship between the two congregations,” says Sandra.
And every year in June, Christ, Grace and First Presbyterian Church in Cullman hold a joint worship service at a local park. The ELCA also shares a full-communion relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
“It’s our Ecumenical Trinity Sunday Service,” says Sandra. “Afterwards, we have a big picnic together.”
Shortly after the tornado, members of Grace and First Presbyterian offered their buildings to members of Christ “so we could have worship,” says Sandra.
“Each minister and congregation has welcomed us. It’s really awesome,” she says. “We’ve been offered a place to gather for Bible study and a place to set our communion chalice” with the processional cross once again leading the way.