Paul S. Edwards: Interfaith Christmas service builds community

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 14 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

In their recent book "American Grace," scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell explore how religion can actually unite Americans. They discover that a key to America's interfaith religious tolerance and appreciation comes from the personal relationships between individuals of different faiths. So how are such relationships fostered? Allow me to provide one example.

Atop a grassy knoll in the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley sits Ben Salem Presbyterian Church. A picture of it could easily have graced a Currier and Ives Christmas card. A neo-gothic chapel built in the late 19th century out of hewn local stone for about a hundred parishioners, it sits beneath a towering maple tree next to an old one-room schoolhouse (now used as a community center).

Its only yuletide deficit? It doesn't have a choir.

A few years ago, the pastor of Ben Salem, Rev. Larry Miles, was lamenting this fact to his round-robin tennis partners. His aging rural congregation always held an evening service of song on the Sunday before Christmas. But it had been years since the church had enjoyed a choir and that year it looked like they might even have trouble getting a pianist for the annual event.

Lisa Burks, one of Pastor Miles' tennis partners and a recent convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a solution. Why not use the local LDS choir? The Lexington Ward of the LDS Church where she worshipped had a small but vibrant family choir that sang each month — why couldn't they sing for Pastor Miles' congregation?

According to Burks, Miles was initially reticent about using Mormons in his service, but as the conversation progressed and the seriousness of the offer became clear, the prospect of filling his church with Christmas carols was so generous and appealing that he agreed.

I was a part of the choir that year, led artfully by my wife Margo. We arrived early at the Ben Salem church on the icy December night of the service. Pastor Miles greeted us into the warm, candle-illuminated chapel. The piano and organ were out of tune. The space provided for the choir felt cramped and uncomfortable. But we adapted to our unfamiliar surroundings as we warmed up, especially when we realized how resonant our voices sounded beneath the timbered ceiling and hardwood floors.

As the hour of the service drew closer we worried whether anyone would come, but just before the top of the hour, cold air blasted through the back doors and a stream of bundled parishioners quickly filled the pews. Indeed, some had to stand in the back.

I admit that I felt some tension as the service began, with choir and congregation from different faith traditions staring at one another across the knave, uncertain of how the evening would unfold. But Pastor Miles used good humor to make everyone feel welcome. Despite the off-key piano, the choir stayed mostly in tune. Pastor Miles shared a heartfelt Christmas message and invited Bishop Keith Bradshaw of the Lexington Ward to read the Christmas story from Luke. And then, in something uncustomary to the Mormons, candles were passed to everyone in the chapel for the choir and congregation to close the service by singing "Silent Night."

As I sang the strains of that carol in the soft candlelight of the old Ben Salem Church, I wondered how Christmas could get any better. I was about to find out. As the service closed both visiting choir and resident congregation were invited to the old school house for "refreshments." Refreshments were not mere punch and cookies. Instead we found a full-blown Shenandoah Valley pot-luck with fried chicken, brown beans, coleslaw, ham biscuits, deviled eggs, pulled pork, pimento spread sandwiches and banana cream pudding.

Someone peering into the steamed windows of the old schoolhouse would have had a hard time distinguishing the choir from the congregation as neighbors acquainting themselves sat across from one another enjoying good food and great fellowship.

I'm pleased to report that this meaningful interfaith Sunday evening of Christmas music continues to this day. One year it is hosted at the Presbyterian Church, the following year it is hosted at the Mormon Church. Last year's paralyzing three-foot snowstorm created the only exception.

The holidays are a perfect time to share and appreciate with neighbors the rich and varied religious traditions that strengthen our community. I encourage you to find time this season to so share. And should you find yourself in south-central Virginia this coming Sunday evening, stop into Ben Salem Presbyterian for heartfelt singing, comforting food and strengthened friendships.

Paul S. Edwards is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: pedwards@desnews.com

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