POSTED ON OCTOBER 31, 2007:
Opening Eyes and Hearts
Recent Tulsa Together worship service continues to remind Christians of their roots
"Eleven o'clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America," lamented the Rev. W. R. Casey, president of Tulsa's Christian Ministers Alliance, recently as he explained the need for the annual "Tulsa Together" worship service his group recently helped to sponsor and organize.
Indeed, in America and especially in Tulsa--a town renowned for its Christian piety, with the enormous golden praying hands of Oral Roberts serving as an apt symbol to the world of the religious devotion that goes on within the churches and mega-churches seen on virtually every street corner--as prodigious the land is with Christians and church buildings, the congregations filling those buildings don't always mix very well, as Casey and others see it.
This stands in stark contrast to the pattern set forth in the biblical record, which depicts Christianity's founder praying that "they may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . that the world might believe that you have sent me": an assembly united in "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all."
And, for all the in-fighting, doctrinal disagreements and power struggles that ensued within the original infant Church of almost 2,000 years ago, it nonetheless worked out according to that pattern for a while (at least for the most part), when mere geography was the main barrier between Christians. There was not the "First Church of Paul" competing for members and collections against the "First Assembly of Apollos" across the street, nor with myriad other cults of personality vying for their niches in the Christian religious market, but there was simply the Church in Corinth, the Church in Rome, the Church in Jerusalem, the Church in Antioch, etc.
That contrast is the impetus, Casey explained, for "Tulsa Together": that there might be simply the "Church of Tulsa" rather than innumerable denominations with little or no contact or cooperation with one another.
"We need to come together," the reverend commanded. "How can we preach about heaven and not work together?"
This year's service, which was held last month at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at 913 S. Boulder Ave., was the 14th such service held in Tulsa since the annual event began in 1994.
The original "Tulsa Together" service, and the 12 that followed, were all "tremendous successes," according to Casey, by virtue of having been "packed to capacity."
And yet, the division it was intended to correct still persists unabated today.
Casey said the event was specifically meant to "promote racial reconciliation" and to "bring all Christian denominations together regardless of race."
Rather than doctrinal, liturgical, stylistic or traditional disagreements, race and racism, the reverend said, are the main evils dividing the church.
For his case-in-point, Casey underscored the fact that "the vast majority of our churches are not really mixed: African-Americans, Caucasians, Native Americans and Hispanics all go to their own churches, but we're supposed to be serving the same God."
So, the "Tulsa Together" service was conceived, Casey explained, as "the coming together of all of us to break down the walls of racism and hatred, where we might tear the barriers down and become what God is calling us to be--that we might be one" by providing a forum for pulpit exchanges and common worship among Christians of all races.
While most of Tulsa's spiritual leaders likely agree with him that there is an unfortunate discord within the Christian community of Tulsa and of the world, few if any, however, join Casey in pointing to racism as church unity's Public Enemy No. 1.
Rather than a pervasive attitude of racism, Tom Harrison, senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, said innocent cultural differences more likely account for the existence of "black churches" as distinct from "white churches."
"There's a certain style you do in black churches that you don't do in a white church" and vice-versa, he said, explaining that people tend to go where their tastes lead them, which usually has more to do with culture and upbringing than with racial prejudice.
"Some of it might be cultural differences, but I've been in church for 42 years--I know that there is racism," said Casey in response to such rebuttals.
Harrison said he hadn't thought deeply about the racial makeup of his own congregation until the issue was brought before him by UTW, but said Asbury Methodist, like many other so-called "white churches" in Tulsa, actually has a pretty healthy mix of diversity, so the existence of certain racially homogenous church congregations is not a result of minorities being unwelcome in predominantly white churches.
However, Harrison leaves room for the possibility that racism could at least be a contributing factor to the congregational divide in Tulsa.
"Just because I'm not aware of it and don't see it doesn't mean it's not there," he said.
If that's the case, though, Harrison said racism itself would not be the main failing among Christians, but merely "a symptom of a greater spiritual problem": a lack of understanding or obedience to the basic teachings of their own religion.
"It's pretty simple: Jesus said we're supposed to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves," the churchman said--something that's obviously not heeded or understood if Christians are retaining and indulging racial prejudices, especially against fellow Christians.
Rather than racism dividing the universal Church, though, Harrison said the predominant factor is an all-too-common human failing: "Human nature wants to do things 'my way,'" he said.
"People get off on their own agenda and serving their own pride," Harrison explained.
"Everything in this world is flawed, and the brokenness in the Church just reflects our sinfulness. It was seen in the New Testament church and it's just been exacerbated by the past 2,000 years," he added.
View of Another Apostle
Bob Green, pastor of Arrow Heights Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, is a member of the executive committee responsible for organizing "Tulsa Together."
While he's among the dozen local spiritual leaders behind the event, Green himself minimizes its stated focus on racism.
"The original purpose is that we might bring people together from different Christian persuasions and different denominations," he said.
"It's designed around having a common worship experience to promote better understanding of different traditions, not so much around addressing racism," Green added.
He acknowledges the possible presence of racism within Tulsa's own little corner of Christendom, but Green said much of the disunity that characterizes 21st Century American Christianity comes from a widespread lack of mutual understanding among different strains of Christianity.
"For the most part, it's from people who have only known one denomination all their lives, and only know others through hearsay," he said.
Like Casey, Green believes an exchange between the many diverse elements of Christendom can foster unity, but he goes beyond an annual event in his pursuit of that exchange.
He's among a handful of Tulsa-area church leaders who regularly participate in the Christian Unity Dialogue Group, which is a monthly gathering at Phillips Theological Seminary, sponsored by the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry.
About a dozen or so church leaders from various traditions--Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, etc.--gather for lunch and for what Green calls "very invigorating discussion."
The topics of the discussion range from social issues to theological questions, he said.
"Why I am a Lutheran in Tulsa, today, (or any other given denominational designation represented in the group)" is one example of a recent topic of discussion, said Jim Mishler, executive director of the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry.
He said such discussions help church leaders "live out the broken nature of the church" by promoting better understanding between denominations.
Mishler said participants don't debate the merits of their own theological positions or traditions, but merely express them for the understanding of others.
Other examples of discussion topics are denominations' different traditions of prayer, and the proper role of the Church in the political and public arenas, among numerous others.
Whatever that ongoing dialogue might be accomplishing in the way of promoting unity within Tulsa's Christian community, however, it isn't very far-reaching, according to Mishler.
"This is admittedly not a fully representative table," he said.
Most of the group's participants don't represent the mainstream Christian culture of Tulsa, and tend to be eyed warily by those who do.
"The harsh reality is, a lot of Christian groups around here are cautious about TMM's goals and objectives," he said.
Changing Face of Ecumenism
The group sponsoring the Christian Unity Dialogue Group began in 1937 as the Tulsa Council of Churches--an exclusively Christian, exclusively Protestant organization.
In the mid-1960s, though, a Roman Catholic congregation was welcomed into the fold.
A few years later, Jewish and Unitarian congregations joined, which necessitated a name change to the "Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry."
Since then, Muslims, Buddhists and Native American religions have also joined the mix.
No longer a strictly Protestant or strictly Christian organization, the TMM's stated goal is to promote religious tolerance and ecumenism, as well as undertaking various other social causes.
The direction change apparently led to a place many Christian congregations didn't feel they could follow without compromising the central tenets of their faith.
Mishler recounted having been told by the leadership of one particular church, in explanation of their withdrawal, "We preach Christ first and foremost. Our job is not to dialogue with other religions."
He said the shepherds of that church and others in Tulsa typically dismiss the efforts of TMM as "an unwise use of time," if not an outright denial of Christianity by undermining its central teaching about the all-importance of exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ.
To that accusation, Mishler said, "I witness to my devotion to Jesus Christ in a variety of ways, both spoken and unspoken."
One of those means of witnessing, he said, is the TMM's "task of finding ways to live together and work together for the common good."
The Christian Unity Dialogue Group is one such effort.
While TMM's membership encompasses any and every religion willing to join, as the name indicates, the dialogue group embraces only professing Christians.
Except, as Mishler previously stated, the Christians who participate don't represent Tulsa's mainstream Christian community.
"The breaks are more sharply felt here," he said of the band of preachers gathered at the latest CUDG meeting.
"Here in Tulsa, where evangelicalism is the dominant expression of Christianity, those of us from other traditions are working hard on finding a niche here," Mishler explained.
Green is the closest representation of "evangelicalism" in the group, Mishler said, but he qualified, "It's dangerous to use that label because there's so much diversity of meaning in it."
However, as Mishler sees it, in the broadest sense of the word, it connotes conservatism, fundamentalism, and an emphasis on the accepted absolute truth and importance of traditional Christian teachings.
Those aren't characteristics that necessarily define those gathered at the CUDG table, though.
"We start from a much less structured core," said Mishler.
From the resurrection to the inspiration of scripture to the nature of the Godhead, there might be as many beliefs and convictions regarding those issues as there are people at the table, he explained.
Of course, this begs the question: If being "Christian" is the basis of the fellowship among those gathered to dialogue for the sake of unity, what is the commonly held definition of that word?
"There are a range of definitions for that word, but what we have in common is that we all believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior," answered Mishler.
He qualified, however, that the definitions of "Lord," "Savior" and even "Jesus" vary among participants.
Even in such a loosely defined fellowship, differences still arise, though, Mishler said.
He recounted an episode in which Monsignor Patrick Gaalaas of St. Bernard Catholic Church administered the Eucharist at one of their gatherings.
"According to his tradition, he couldn't give me communion because I'm not Catholic, and that hurt me. But that's just something I have to accept," Mishler said.
While the Christian Unity Dialogue Group represents a small portion of Tulsa's more liberally-inclined Christian community, Mishler said he wasn't aware of any such gatherings among the more mainstream Christian groups in the city.
Also, none of the other church leaders questioned by UTW were aware of any city-wide organizations in which more "evangelical"-leaning churches or church leaders pooled efforts and resources, or held ongoing dialogues to foster greater unity.
Harrison said, however, that although there isn't any identifiable "alliance" or organization, there are countless "informal networks" through which the leadership within Tulsa's mainstream Christian community cooperates and interacts.
As for the unity held up by Christ as the standard for his Church, the preacher said, "It's an ideal. Realistically, it's not going to happen. The divide is just too deep."
Attainable or not, Green pointed to the recent "Tulsa Together" gathering as one way to move closer to that ideal. Whether one agrees or not with its stated premise that racism is primarily responsible for dividing the Church, he said, it's always a good thing when Christians from such diverse backgrounds gather in unity.
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