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Issue Date:  January 21, 2005

Throw open the doors on Church Street

The week of Christian unity reminds us to deal with differences in the open air if mercy


In the town where I was called to work, one whole street was dedicated to places of worship. “Church Street,” as it was named, consisted of one church after another. They stood hip to hip on each side of the street, front doors staring blankly across, with sidewalks ribboning and connecting each entrance. These faith communities met and worshiped side by side, Sunday after Sunday, in a rhythmic and methodical way. Observing this ritual led me to ponder the often-contradictory ways we wander during life. Although people continually came together, bringing their stories of happiness, sadness, birth and death to their small faith community, they seemed unaware of each other. In community after community, people gathered to be cared for and caressed by God, yet seemed oblivious to the need to do so between communities. The need for these communities to hold hands and hearts, creating a larger community, seemed unimportant.

But each year during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Jan. 18-25, I think of Church Street in this town. I think of our many communities whose sidewalks meet door to door and of the people who sit on school boards together, run a local government, and of the kids who play football and basketball on the same teams. And I wonder: Why on Sunday do we go to different buildings to pray to our same God?

Painfully, I have come to realize that orthodoxy and heresy -- or their contemporary equals, conservatism and liberalism, or traditional values and political correctness -- are here to stay. Our mission, the same as in our family and in our world, is to make good use of them. If we assess all views and ways of life with open minds, compassionate hearts and imaginative spirits, we see both orthodoxy and heresy as part of the human and historical context in which God lives and works for all of us.

Getting along with others doesn’t begin by demanding that others change, but in accepting that we aren’t so perfect ourselves. Let’s go to another community called Capernaum and enter a small house occupied by a great teacher and his students. The teacher overhears the students arguing. Listen as the teacher asks his students a question:

“What were you arguing about?”

The students’ faces flushed. Not red with anger, but pink with embarrassment. They had argued. About curriculum or doctrine? No. Over strategy? Not that, either. Ethics and values? Sorry. They had argued about which of them was the greatest.

A student with imagination by the name of Peter thought he was the greatest (he’d walked on water). John, who had passion and compassion, laid claim to the top slot (he was the teacher’s favorite). Andrew, whose open mind boasted he was the best (after all, he introduced the teacher to Peter).

They were jockeying for position. Isn’t that where division usually begins? Where jealousy and selfishness are, there will be confusion and every kind of evil.

Remarkable. Fighting for power in the presence of the teacher. But not as remarkable as a wise teacher’s response.

Accept one another. The answer to arguments? Acceptance. The first step to unity? Acceptance. Not agreement -- acceptance. Not unanimity -- acceptance. Not negotiation, arbitration or elaboration. Those might come later, but only after the first step: acceptance. In fact, this teacher felt so strongly about acceptance that he used the word four times in one verse: “Whoever accepts a child like this in my name accepts me. And whoever accepts me, accepts the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

True unity is not achieved by leaving our differences hidden but by dealing with them in the open air of mercy. Not by being told “this subject is not open to discussion” or “we are better than all others.” Just as a ship has many cabins (rooms), so God’s kingdom has room for many opinions. But just as a ship has just one main deck, it is on this common deck where we come out of our cabins to stand together. This common deck, our common ground, represents the essentials of our faith such as the uniqueness of the teacher, the infallibility of scripture, the faults of being human. It is from this deck that we face the world.

Our uncommon ground is a barren island compared to the great continent of common ground we share. If we can agree upon the majestic uniqueness of a teacher by the name of Christ, don’t we share enough to accept one another?

During this week for Christian Unity, I believe some young child may ask, “How can there be peace in the world, if there is no peace between religions?” It will be then that the doors of possibilities will open on Church Street.

Fr. Jim Swarthout was a Roman Catholic priest for 12 years. He is now pastor of St. James Episcopal Church in West Dundee, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2005

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