Communion Across Difference

By Neva Rae Fox
Correspondent

The 2014 merger of a Black and an Anglo church, both founded in the decades after the Civil War, united their history, their ministries, and their gifts. This union also incorporated a long-term partnership with Mountain Synagogue.

The Rev. John Archibald Deal, the first Episcopal priest in the mountain town of Franklin, North Carolina, founded the congregation of what became St. Agnes Church in the mid-1870s. A few years later, he began working with James Kennedy, a teacher and talented woodworker, to establish St. Cyprian’s, a mission to the town’s Black population. In 1994, the two churches formed a ministry partnership, and 10 years later became one parish, All Saints Church, gathering in two historic chapels.

“In the merger, St. Cyprian’s brought with them their 40 years with Mountain Synagogue,” said the Rev. Jonathan Stepp, rector. “We are in a small town in the mountains, and they are the only synagogue in the area west of the largest city in this area [Asheville].”

Before COVID-19, the synagogue conducted services in All Saints’ parish hall. The pandemic stopped in-person gatherings for both, but not online worship and fellowship.

A deepening relationship between church and synagogue

Over the years, the relationship between church and synagogue has deepened and expanded.

“There has never been a pressing issue,” Stepp said.

A prime example is the coordination of the calendar. “We’ve been creative on both sides,” said Joel Edelson, president of Mountain Synagogue. “We’re both very good about being flexible back and forth.”

Cost-sharing is included in the space-sharing, such as recent bills for mold removal.

The two sponsor successful joint services and celebrations. One followed the 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. “We had a service, an interfaith service, and it was a very nice gathering with outpouring of support,” Edelson said.

Others included a “true non-denominational service” for Thanksgiving and for Valentine’s.

The two congregations also focus on a joint community project called Mitzvah Day, but the pandemic halted the effort. “We were planning our second Mitzvah Day,” Stepp said, “but COVID came, and we had to stop.”

Stepp and Edelson have expanded their alliance to include other religions. “Joel and I started the first interfaith association with the regional Bahá’í and Unitarian Universalists,” Stepp said.

“Where we have really rubbed shoulders is doing things together and then with the community at large — an evolution or a growth from two to interfaith relationships.”

Mountain Synagogue recently hired Rabbi Barry M. Altman, who has conducted services from Florida. “Virtual is a learning curve,” Altman said, but he is committed. “My wife is my technical adviser. I think as an alternative it is great and it has been working.”

The three talked about their joint venture for a memorial garden on the All Saints grounds, respectful of keeping each other’s traditions.

“Our graveyard is 100 years old,” Stepp said. Recently “space was consecrated for ashes. Space was put aside for Jewish ground that was consecrated by a rabbi.”

Plans for the project include transforming the area to “make it into a true memorial garden,” Stepp said. “We have preserved the Jewish and Christian areas. We used hedges between the two.”

Everyone is looking forward to getting together again in person, once pandemic restrictions are lifted.

“I know we will be back,” Stepp said. “We need to see each other in person and not exclusively on Zoom.”

“When we feel safer, we will return,” Edelson said. “We will stay together on Zoom.”

As for Mountain Synagogue and All Saints Church, Altman sees a bright and growing horizon for this relationship: “Reconnect, rebuild, and re-establish our churches and synagogues. From there, there will be all good works. Our minds and our hearts are such that we will succeed.”