By Betsy Rogers
St. George’s Episcopal Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church of Belleville, Illinois, experienced deep unity nearly 20 years before their denominations approved language of full communion in the Called to Common Mission agreement, which was ratified at the turn of the century.
Members of the two churches gathered November 5 to celebrate their 40th year of sharing buildings — and a great deal more — in downtown Belleville, Illinois.
The Rt. Rev. Brian Burgess, Episcopal Bishop of Springfield, and the Rev. Dr. S. John Roth, Bishop of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Church in America, helped celebrate this Ruby Jubilee.
Burgess was celebrant at a 10:30 a.m. Eucharist, and Roth preached. The two churches’ choirs joined in leading music. St. Mark’s handbell choir provided the prelude. Youth and adult members of both parishes read lessons, led prayers, and served as acolytes.
“We are not here this morning to congratulate ourselves for the level of Christian unity that St. Mark and St. George’s have achieved over 40 years,” Roth preached. “Rather, we are here this morning in gratitude to God for the blessing it has been — in this particular context, in this particular arrangement — to be co-citizens with the saints and household of God.”
Roth said the relationship grew out of a commitment to mission in two healthy parishes. “Both St. George’s and St. Mark were vibrant congregations going into 1982-83,” he said. “You came together because the relationship enhanced your ministries individually and jointly. If that were not true, that this relationship grew out of missional motive and not out of survival need, I cannot imagine the relationship sustaining at all, much less sustaining fruitfully as it has, all these years.”
After the service, congregants shared a luncheon at Bella Milano restaurant in O’Fallon.
After lunch, three clergy spoke: the Rev. Ron Neustadt, who served 34 years at St. Mark until his 2010 retirement; the Rev. Brian Robison, his successor; and the Very Rev. Mark Ohlemeier, priest in charge of St. George’s.
The story began in 1982, when St. Mark, a young congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church meeting in the Belleville Philharmonic Hall, needed a place for its offices and Christian education. (The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America united in 1988 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)
The Rev. Hewitt Johnston, St. George’s rector at the time, welcomed them to the Episcopal campus. Within a year the Lutherans had moved their Sunday services to St. George’s as well, with Episcopalians worshiping at 8 and 10:30 am and the Lutherans at 9 a.m. Christian education is at 9:15 a.m. for Episcopalians and 10:30 for Lutherans.
Both parishes quickly learned the possibilities of sharing the space. They opened a food pantry, run by volunteers from both congregations and still in operation today, that serves hundreds of needy families in Belleville. A Meals on Wheels team includes Lutheran and Episcopal volunteers.
At various times the churches have combined for Lenten studies and other educational opportunities. Their altar guilds work closely together, and members of both congregations turn out for workdays to rake leaves, wash windows, and tend to other maintenance chores.
St. Mark and St. George’s worship together, under terms of the Called to Common Mission agreement, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Ascension Thursday, and Christmas Day. The ELCA adopted Called to Common Mission in 1999, and the Episcopal Church adopted it a year later.
The clergy in these one-pastor congregations appreciate having a colleague at hand, and often stand in for each other in hospital visits. During various periods of clergy vacancy at St. George’s, the Lutheran pastors have been generous in supplying at St. George’s. Office staff help each other, including on ever-vexing tech issues. The directors of music collaborate and substitute for each other as needed.
Four years ago, the two parishes established a joint task force to oversee property management and improvements. This team has made major improvements to the physical plant, including new storage areas and a new bathroom, and has transformed the buildings and grounds, correcting years of deferred maintenance and some neglect.
Most recently, the two parishes have decided to publish a shared pictorial directory. Each congregation will have its own section, but the two will be joined in a spiral binding — an apt symbol of the growing unity and mission they have experienced.
Betsy Rogers is a member of St. George’s Episcopal Church.