“Ecumenism – unity and cooperation between the world’s Christian churches – and interfaith relationships have always played an important part in my life.” I was raised as a Roman Catholic, then I joined the Unitarian Universalist church, and now I am developing and nurturing a stronger relationship with God and Jesus as a United Church of Christ pastor. It is quite fitting that I was called to Trinity Church in Shelburne Falls, a federated church.
Trinity comprises four denominations – United Church of Christ, American Baptist, United Methodist and Episcopal. In joining together, the original four churches have given up their individuality, but they have learned to work in partnership and become one united church with four beautiful traditions – and it is the only “mainstream” Protestant church in the village of Shelburne Falls. Recently, the church became a member of the Interfaith Council of Franklin County, and some of the church members have a passion for interconnections with not only their own but other faith groups.
Despite this openness to different faith teachings, it was still a bit surprising to some when a Buddhist approached us and asked if we could hold a memorial service for his wife. The wife, also a Buddhist, was well-traveled and had come to appreciate and respect varied religious beliefs. She was quite well known in the town and her husband thought it would be more comfortable to those grieving if the service was held in our sanctuary, which has hosted many funeral and memorial services for community people. After much discussion among the members, we agreed to hold the service. Those who came and were previously unfamiliar with our church were touched by the open and loving environment they experienced as they mourned.
That pastoral request led some of us to want to focus more on reaching out to those unfamiliar to us. We looked around and were surprised to find that Buddhism was the strongest other religion in this small rural town. In recent years, there was a rather large influx of Buddhist groups that populated the area.
We reached out to these centers, and Tony Walker and his wife Gisela from the Shelburne Falls Shambhala Center responded. The center is a small practicing sangha (community) of Shambhala practitioners and members from other traditions, which welcomes people interested in meditation from all walks of life and practice. They too were interested in an opportunity to have Christians and Buddhists get together.
As a result, the two groups collaborated to show the film Jesus & Buddha: Practicing Across Traditions at Trinity. The film showing drew an overflow crowd of 100 people. A smaller interfaith conversation circle immediately followed the movie. [See Spotlight article about the event.] It has also resulted in planned future interfaith discussions and gatherings for a core group.
The collaboration had an even bigger effect on the community than planned. Trinity got to meet and learn more about the Buddhists in the area. However, it was also an opportunity for different Buddhist groups to get together as well. Like Christianity itself and the UCC, with its various types of churches, the Buddhists also have many different types of sanghas, practices and teachers.
Christians and Buddhists alike, as well as other members in the Shelburne Falls community, now have better understandings of each others’ beliefs and traditions. This new connection has encouraged us to regularly take a look around and ask ourselves: Who are our neighbors now? What is God saying to us now in our time and place? Continuing to ask those questions can only help to open our hearts wider.
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