Having grown up outside the church, coming to faith in the Lutheran church, finding my way into a Baptist seminary, birthing a ministry made up initially of catholic women, while being a member of a Methodist church, I knew whatever God called me to, it would involve unifying the body of Christ. In Seminary I took a class on Ecumenism. The professor said, “We will never be able to unite the body of Christ around doctrine. However, we can unite in our care of the poor and the oppressed.”
In 2004, when I wrote the original vision statement for Embrace Richmond it was with this goal in mind. Earlier this year, our board modified the vision statement which now reads, “A city united to embrace all; bridging people of every race, class, and religious background together to care for one another.” When I wrote this statement I had no idea how difficult it would be to actually achieve this vision.
For the past month, I have been praying a lot about the word “unity” and what “unity that bridges people of every religious background together to care for one another” actually means. I have written many posts on the difficulties of bridging people of different races and classes but by far the most difficult task has been bridging people from different religious traditions within the Christian faith.
This week my associate Janie Walker led our team in a meditation on the core values of Embrace Richmond. The core value of “Missional Unity” caught my attention. It reads, “We value Missional Unity birthed out of racial, economic, religious, and cultural diversity.” I realized at that moment that we had inadvertently dropped one very key concept from the conversation on unity and that concept is unity around mission.
The original vision statement of Embrace reads, “We envision a city united to embrace all who are in need; a place where people of every race, class and religious background join together to care for their neighbors in need.” When we removed the missional emphasis from our vision statement, we did so thinking that this element of who we are was explicit in our mission statement. However, in hindsight, I wonder if this was wise. Will future generations understand that the unity we seek is unity in caring for those in need?
In conversations on the topic of “unity” as it relates to faith, we often default to the question, “Do you believe what I believe?” However, the missional unity that is the core of our vision statement asks an entirely different question. Missional unity asks the question, “Do you care about what I care about?”
I do not believe it is possible to unify people of different faith traditions around a set of beliefs. The history books are proof of that. However, I do believe it is possible to unity people of different faith traditions around the shared mission of reducing poverty and suffering in our city.
The difficulty in achieving this mission then becomes one of finding unity in methodology. This is a whole different conversation which I hope to consider in a later post.
In short, I was reminded this week that the focus has to be on the mission and it is the mission that unifies us. I look forward to exploring the concept of missional unity more in the coming weeks.
What experiences have you had working with ecumenical groups? How have you seen different faith traditions unify around shared mission? What practices or processes do you think can help achieve this kind of unity?