Congregation Beth Shalom in Columbia, Mo., were renting space for their synagogue from the Hillel Center, the Jewish student ministry organization at the University of Missouri. The synagogue had grown in number, along with the size of our fair city, and they were out of room for the celebration of their High Holy Days, pointedly Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
Their leased synagogue space could easily handle the 50 or so who attended weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) services, but Yom Kippur could sometimes command 400 or more in attendance.
So what did they do? They asked their spiritual neighbors at First Baptist Church if they could rent our sanctuary for their celebrations. Though with a small gulp, we answered with a hearty “Yes,” but we refused to accept any payment.
Positive interfaith relationships are crucial in our day and time. These relationships have been vitally important all along, but they are usually ignored or not pursued. Much prejudice, distrust and judgment occurs from fear, ignorance, stubbornness and pride. These negatives arise all too frequently between spiritual communities of faith.
Jews, Christians and Muslims, as far as I am concerned, worship the same God called by different names, and we are all three children of Abraham.
When the Jews come to worship in our sanctuary, they bring with them their tabernacle, Torah scrolls, candles, vestments, altar cloths and worship books. We allow them to remove our altar cross and cover up the cross that is on our chancel table. They cannot cover up our stained glass windows or carved words of witness above our baptistery.
This has gone on for nearly eight years now, and the fruits of the shared space and respect for each other’s faith tradition and community are bountiful.
The first time that Congregation Beth Shalom worshipped in our sanctuary, we were vandalized that night. Our outside lights were torn down, and a vandal cut his wrist on a lamp’s glass in the process. Smeared in blood on our dark green front door were a swastika and a few ignorant words. A police report was made, but no one was ever charged. The Congregation has hired parking lot guards annually ever since.
Out of the initial Rosh Hashanah celebration grew my deep and abiding friendship with Rabbi Yossi Feintuch. I have learned much from him, and I trust so has he from me. A great deal of what we say and do is quite similar. The main disagreement, of course, is the identity and role of Jesus, but there is much else in common. We share struggles of faith and profession and have offered each other pastoral care numerous times.
Members of First Baptist are always invited to Congregation Beth Shalom’s worship services. We often share a joint, pre-service meal together (the last meal before Yom Kippur’s fast).
Our two congregations joined together in 2004 for a trip to our local theater for a showing of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.” You talk about a charged, anxious atmosphere! We met back at our church for a meaningful time of emotion-letting and discussion.
The synagogue also uses our space for their main, annual fund-raiser–corned beef on rye sandwich lunches, complete with dill pickle and kosher dessert. They made 2,300 lunches in a two-day period this year. With their food team in our Fellowship Hall, it was hard to preach on March 19 because of the great smell; my salivary glands were working overtime.
Our Jewish friends are thankful for our good relationships, as well as the use of our physical space.
They express their appreciation annually by preparing “oneg” (meaning, “delight”) tables for us, heavy laden with chocolates, cakes, cookies, teas and ciders, around which we gather prior to our 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service. Many of the makers then stay to help us welcome the birth of Jesus in word and song. It’s really quite special.
One of my favorite experiences happens more and more frequently the longer Congregation Beth Shalom uses our facilities. I hear time and again of Jewish folk I know say to each other, “See you at church!” And I smile.
Just in case we’ve forgotten, I hope we can remember that Jesus was a Jew. His parents were Jews. Jesus denounced certain aspects of Jewish worship, leadership or tradition (who hasn’t done that from time to time about those “Some Other Baptists”?), but he never denounced his heritage. Neither should we.
The good rabbi and I are in discussion about a certain Bible study that we will jointly share with our congregations this year, and we hope to “take it on the road” someday. So if you hear of it, welcome us to your congregation! We’d love to come and share.
John D. Baker is pastor at First Baptist Church of Columbia, Mo.