By Mary Beth Foust
The whole thing was birthed from one craving for relationship. After the San Bernardino shootings in 2015, Barrett Owen, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Waynesboro, Virginia, felt strongly that he needed a fellow faith leader in his community with whom he could process what had happened.
This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship for him and fellow Lutheran pastor, Paul Pingel, and it was also the start of a relationship for their respective churches. Pingel had spent 10 years in the Waynesboro community and was a well-known leader. Owen, at that time, was still a newcomer to the area. He describes the next few months as “a whirlwind of right timing,” for an ecumenical group of pastors to emerge. This group included Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Episcopalian, COGIC and Presbyterian faith leaders. The majority of these pastors and priests were leading congregations within a mile of one another in the small town of 22,000 people.
The group began to meet monthly to pray and fellowship together and soon the desire evolved for them to do something together, which meant growing to next steps and inviting their congregations into relationship.
Then, the attacks in Charlottesville in 2017 compelled the leaders to look for greater diversity in their ecumenical group as they attempted to lead their congregations through yet another national tragedy. Through prayer and friendship several black pastors were added to this evolving group.
The congregations began to invite one another to events and to services of each one’s unique tradition. Owen said they all realized that their “future is interdependent.” One such event, entitled Faith-N-Film, is hosted by First Baptist Waynesboro every two months at the Wayne Theatre in the downtown area. The church presents a mainline film and uses it as a resource for Christian growth, exploring religious questions that arise from the film. Films used have ranged from Black Panther to Will You Be My Neighbor?
A yearly tradition at St. John’s Catholic Church is a Pentecost Picnic. Grace Lutheran Church holds an annual Palm Sunday March beginning on their church lawn where hundreds of Christians from the various congregations gather on Palm Sunday, parading and marching with palms through the city of Waynesboro to welcome Christ anew to the city. St. John’s Episcopal Church hosts a Blessing of the Animals service yearly with members from all the churches invited to bring their animals to be blessed for the year ahead.
Events and services like these sparked Pingel to reach out to the group when his church wanted to host an End Hunger Now meal packaging event. After raising funds through the Synod and through this consortium of congregational leaders, more than 160 people attended the event and packaged 50,000 meals in two hours. The event provided tasks for all ages and was a great way for the congregations to work together to accomplish a single goal.
Owen says the group will continue to work and dream together in the days and years ahead. It is clear to him and these other leaders that, “the future is ecumenical. We’re not competing against each other. It is isolating and futile to think you can go at building the Kingdom alone. We shared our resources and, in essence, we began to share our lives together in community.” We do not share in a competitive way as “it is not our goal to make Waynesboro more Baptist.”
The spirit of God is alive in this group of Christians in Waynesboro and together they are experiencing the mystery of God that comes when faith and resources begin to flow in the same direction. The desire for human relationship in response to tragedy between two pastors produced a movement in which a community can work together to bring about the Kingdom here on earth as they dream it to be in heaven—diverse, ecumenical and full of life together.