By Cindy Novak
As leaders and members of the ELCA and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church return after a historic summit, Grant Harrison, pastor of Soldiers Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Salisbury, N.C., says he looks forward to learning more about the ways congregations of both denominations can work together in shared ministry.
The daylong summit took place September 17, 2011, at Hood Theological Seminary, Salisbury, preceded by a worship service held at nearby St. John’s Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation.
The relationship between the two denominations may be the first time in U.S. history where a historically White church and a historically Black church have agreed to cooperative ministry.
Even so, ELCA and African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregations, like Soldiers Memorial and St. John’s, already have engaged in mutual ministry over the years.
“Cooperation represents to me what the church is all about, particularly when we think not just locally but globally,” Grant says, adding that both denominations are global churches. “I would want members of Soldiers to see themselves as part of the larger church. It is an opportunity for us to get to know our neighbors better and to learn about things that we have in common. We are different, but we can learn from each other.”
For example, through the Zion Lutheran Connection, members of the two congregations had the opportunity to collaborate on a number of projects, including a children’s Music and Arts Camp; a Family Music Extravaganza followed by a picnic dinner and ongoing joint Thanksgiving services. Future ideas include pulpit and choir exchanges, and collaborative outreach through prison ministry, Habitat for Humanity projects and youth sports programs.
Before this connection was established, members of Soldiers and St. John’s did not have opportunities to share their Christian faith together. But today, members visit one another’s churches “and see the beauty of our two buildings,” says Grant. But even more, he says, “It gives our members a sense of something different — activities that have not been the norm in the Black church. We want our members to see themselves as part of something bigger.”
“Establishing relationships is pleasing in the eyes of God, where we all come together in praise and fellowship,” says Mark Lewis, a member of St. John’s, who was on a committee five years ago that helped form the goal of reaching out to an African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregation. “Together, we are focused on outreach ministry in our neighborhood.”
Roots of the relationship
The ELCA-African Methodist Episcopal Zion summit is rooted in a relationship that began five years ago among Albert Aymer, president of Hood Theological Seminary, Leonard Bolick, bishop of the ELCA North Carolina Synod, and George Walker, African Methodist Episcopal Zion senior bishop, after the seminary relocated to a campus next to the synod’s headquarters in Salisbury.
Their relationship ultimately led to conversations between the two denominations that began in 2006. Over the years, leaders have discussed their shared commitment to theological education, responding to HIV and AIDS, and the vitality of congregations.
The result is a Statement of Mission that was recently affirmed by the ELCA Conference of Bishops and the Board of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Rhodes Woolly, pastor of St. John’s, said he was honored to host the ELCA-African Methodist Episcopal Zion summit service. “It was a responsibility we took very seriously,” he said. “We have had some wonderful collaboration with Soldiers in the past, and we certainly look forward to sharing events with them in the future.”
Grant said he looks forward to seeing how other partnerships will grow throughout ELCA-African Methodist Episcopal Zion partnerships.
“Perhaps this model will touch other branches of the church,” he said.
Cindy Novak is a member of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill. She lives in Lisle, Ill., with her husband, David, and her children, Sam and Emily.