By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 18) coincides with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25); an annual event wherein members of many Christian denominations ask God to help bridge divides spiritually and in the practical sense.
Catholics have been working with Christians of other churches for generations — including during the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s. During this period, Rev. King, a Baptist minister, collaborated with Catholics around the nation to fight racial discrimination. Rev. King visited Davenport on April 28, 1965, where he met with members of the Diocese of Davenport’s Catholic Interracial Council. The president of that council, Charles Toney, had initiated a key successful discrimination lawsuit in 1942, which helped the civil rights movement catch fire locally, and caught the attention of Rev. King. In 1965, King visited Iowa to receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
Although many denominations continue to have theological differences, Catholics and other Christians are still working together today. In Dubuque, for example, the Ministerium, a group of Christian ministers and other church leaders from different faith traditions meets monthly at different locations around the city.
“It helps me get to realize what’s going on in the other Christian communities around town,” said Father Jack Paisley, a retired priest for the archdiocese of Dubuque who attends the meetings regularly. “It’s social interaction as well.”
The latest Ministerium meeting took place Jan. 12 at Shalom Spirituality Center, an organization run by Franciscan sisters. Usually each meeting begins with a prayer, followed by a meal, and then a talk on a different topic relevant to Christians.
“We all love the Lord and one God, said Pastor Okitakdyi Lundula of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. “We all serve one community, and we serve the people in different churches. In order to serve (the people) in our differences, it’s good for us as leaders to come together.”
The recent meeting, attended by about 20 ministers and others, started with a prayer written specifically for the Prayer Week for Christian Unity. It was composed by the Graymoor Ecumenical Interreligious Institute, a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.
The Church Unity Octave, a forerunner of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was developed by Father Paul Wattson, SA, at Graymoor in Garrison, New York, and was first observed at Graymoor from Jan. 18-25, 1908. Today, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity invites the whole Christian community throughout the world to pray in communion with the prayer of Jesus “that they all may be one” (John 17:21).
In 1966, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Vatican Secretariat (now Council) for Promoting Christian Unity began collaborating as a common international text for worldwide usage, according to information from the institute.
Father Dustin Lyon, a Greek Orthodox priest who’s president of the Ministerium, recognizes the barriers that separate different denominations, but believes it important to strive for unity.
“Even if it may not be possible for Christians to become unified in this life, we owe it to ourselves to pray for it, to love each other and to work together to help others,” said Father Lyon.
Cooperation between Christian churches in Dubuque is nothing new, according to Father Eugene Kutsch, a retired archdiocesan priest who had been involved with the Ministerium.
“I recall in the 1940s and 1950s there seemed to be a lack of cordiality between leaders of the Catholic and Protestant denominations in Dubuque and little interest in common efforts to promote a better life in the community,” remembered Father Kutsch. “Due to the efforts of the Church World Federation and Vatican Council II (1962 – 1965) a new spirit of ecumenism emerged in Dubuque and elsewhere in the middle and late 60s.”
In the 1970s, Dubuque Area Christians United, (now called Congregations United), was formed and members collaborated on charitable efforts especially, including the Dubuque Food Pantry. Father Kutsch believes it’s important for Christians to come together.
“Although each person needs to have a sense of their own religious identity, we also need to come together to celebrate what we have in common as people of faith and to exert collectively a solid religious influence in our community,” he said.
At the Ministerium’s latest meeting, Franciscan Sister Michelle Balek gave a presentation on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,” emphasizing that “Care for Our Common Home” transcends divides.
“‘Laudato Si’ was written for everyone, not just Catholics,” said Sister Michelle. “It’s very readable because pope Francis is inviting all people everywhere to enter into dialogue about all these issues. We need to decide what kind of planet and what kind of future we want and the only way we can decide that is if we start talking to one another.”
In addition to the primer on the pope’s ecologically focused document, the sister also gave attendees a brief history of St. Francis and Franciscan spirituality. During the meal, before and after the meeting, members engaged in lively conversation, sometimes discussing the benefits and trials of being in ministry.
“Some of it is just gaining fellowship and getting inspired,” said Pastor Karen Candee of Summit Congregation UCC of her reasons for being part of the ecumenical group. “With presentations (like the one Sister Michelle gave), it opens your eyes to what’s going on beyond the Dubuque area.”
This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.