Talk about an ecumenical movement — this is a real one. And the operative word is "movement."
On Sunday, June 18, the congregation of Westminster Presbyterian Church marched en masse over to Agudas Achim Congregation synagogue where they will be holding their Sunday worship services until spring 2007. The exact opposite exchange of worship facilities occurred 12 years ago when the Agudas Achim Congregation utilized Westminster Presbyterian for their services.
What has triggered this interfaith exchange is not a theological experiment but rather the very practical need for space brought on by the renovation of both facilities. It is, of course, coupled with a more altruistic desire to reach out and across a faith divide to provide mutual aid to one another.
Beginning in Westminster's rose garden at 2701 Cameron Mills Road, the group, led by a bagpiper, church pastor The Rev. Larry Hayward and Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim, walked the five blocks to the synagogue, 2908 Valley Drive, where they were unexpectedly greeted by a crowd of Agudas Achim members who offered smiles, waves, handshakes and hugs to their friends and neighbors.
"It was extremely moving to our members and a day they will never forget. It was abundantly clear to us that Agudas Achim really wanted us to use their space," said Hayward.
"That welcome was so strong by a large portion of our 500 household members that it changed my thinking on the use of the synagogue by other congregations," said Moline. Normally, synagogues are not to be used for other than Jewish worship services, according to Moline.
"When we did our renovation 12 years ago, we used three different facilities — Westminster Presbyterian Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, and Minnie Howard School. We were under renovation for a little over a year," Moline said.
"It's a great relationship with Westminster and Trinity that goes back over 30 years. And, its a very natural relationship. In fact my daughter had her bat mitzvah at Westminster Presbyterian at the time we were there," he said.
"WE ARE RENOVATING every square inch of our facility which was originally driven by long overdue changes in the air conditioning and heating systems," Hayward explained. "It is going to be about a 10-month project. We are scheduled to be back in by next spring."
Founded in 1939, the 860-plus member church has occupied the same location since that time, according to Hayward, who came to Westminster Presbyterian two years ago. The sanctuary was constructed in 1952.
Upon completion of the work the choir chancel will be expanded; the fourth floor, which has remained unfinished, will be completed; and the lobby will serve as a library/lobby. Church offices are now located in a trailer on the church parking lot. The Sanctuary, which now seats approximately 650, will loose about one row of pews due to the chancel expansion, according to Hayward.
"When they offered their space, we made the decision not to change that space during our worship time. The only thing we brought was our large pulpit bible. One of our members made a small baptismal bowl, challis and communion plate," Hayward said.
"I said they were welcome to bring all the symbols of their faith with them. But, they have been very sensitive to our requirements," Moline said.
"The biggest change from my perspective is that I have to keep my pulpit clean. That's a challenge for me but you can't have guests with clutter," he said.
"Synagogues are much more adaptable to being used by others than churches. When we worship elsewhere we must cover the symbols of those religions," Moline said.
As for Westminster Presbyterian, "The most interesting change physically has been that we have agreed that any foods we bring into the synagogue will be kosher. That means that our fellowship hour after Sunday services features only kosher foods," Hayward said.
There is one common big problem according to Moline — parking. "It's our contribution to highlighting Gov. Kaine's agenda," he said.
This mutual exchange has been so successful that it has sparked a planned educational series to be held in February 2007. "The object of the series is to explore the differences between the two faiths. It will be held on four consecutive week nights," according to Hayward. The actual dates have not been established as yet.