Jewish Congregation and UMC Church Gather to Celebrate Passover
By Lindsay Peyton
St. Peter’s UMC in Katy and Tree of Life Messianic Congregation are preparing their annual Seder Meal, celebrating Passover together for their third year in a row. Both congregations join to break matzah together, learn about the Jewish origins of Christianity and strengthen faith.
Celebrating Passover was a tradition at St. Peter’s UMC before the church began renting space on Saturdays to the Tree of Life Messianic Congregation. Whitney Peper, Pastor of Care Ministries at St. Peter’s, started observing the holiday with students when she worked as children’s worship coordinator.
“I decided to do a small Seder with the kids on Palm Sunday,” she said. “It grew and grew until it was a full service. Then, more families wanted to get involved.”
By 2016, St. Peter’s hosted a full, church-wide Seder. “It was great, but it felt like it was missing something, like it wasn’t exactly what it could be,” Peper recalled.
That all changed when Tree of Life entered the picture. After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, the Messianic congregation was no longer able to worship at the school where they had been holding their services. Rabbi Steve Sheek is a member of the Katy Church, an association of ministers in the area.
The organization told him that St. Peter’s would be willing to host his congregation for a month.
“We worship on Saturdays, at a time when St. Peter’s is normally empty,” Sheek said.
Before long, he asked if the relationship could continue for longer than a month. Meeting at St. Peter’s was better than the school where they gathered previously, he explained. St. Peter’s also felt a connection.
Sheek remembers lead pastor Dr. Pat Sparks telling him, “You guys can reach and hold a segment of people that we never could. I see you as an extension of our evangelism.”
Since then, Tree of Life was welcomed with open arms at St. Peter’s. “Everybody has just been really great to us,” Sheek said. “It has been a real blessing for us to be there.”
When the time for Passover services neared the first year, Peper approached Sheek with a proposal. “What if we did it together?” she asked.
In 2018, the two congregations hosted their first combined event. “And it’s been going great,” Peper said. “Every year, we have a longer and longer waiting list.”
She explained that Tree of Life members deeply appreciated the venue. “Being able to have the Seder at a church meant a lot to them,” she said. “We were recognizing their faith. It was also great for us.”
Dr. Sparks explained that St. Peter’s benefits from learning about Passover in a new way. “His faith tradition gives us a really clear picture, a more accurate description of the Seder meal,” Sparks said. “It feels like I’m participating in the heritage of our faith.”
Sheek is able both to tell the Passover story in an authentic way and to tie in nuances of how it relates to Christianity and Jesus.
“It’s really powerful to me,” Sparks said. “I’m sitting there with folks not of my church, not of my denomination. I think of John 17, when Jesus prayed that ‘they may be one.’ This is one small way that we can sit with people who don’t believe exactly the same things, but do believe in the Messiah, who wants us to be one.”
Sheek said that having St. Peter’s host the event also helps keep the cost down. Each table will have a Seder plate for the occasion. A caterer for the dinner is able to meet the congregation’s kosher requirements. Sheek’s wife and other women from Tree of Life make the desserts.
“It’s a big deal and takes a lot of work and preparation,” Sheek said.
Sheek said that the Bible commands that Passover is celebrated. He also sees the holiday as an ideal opportunity to talk about belief. “It’s definitely a story of redemption and freedom,” he said.
Sheek plans to either livestream or record the service so others can watch and celebrate too. He encourages all faiths to celebrate Passover at home as well.
The Seder Meal attracts others who are interested in Passover, who are not members of either St. Peter’s or Tree of Life, Sheek added. “It’s for Jewish people who believe in Jesus and Christians who want to live a Jewish lifestyle,” he said.
Tree of Life formed in 2016, with about 15 members. Since then, the congregation has grown and flourished at St. Peter’s. Sheek said that a lot of friendships have formed between the two congregations.
Sheek often teaches adult Sunday school and discipleship classes at St. Peter’s. “He gives us so much insight,” Sparks said.
“And he’s so willing to share his faith and to inspire faith,” Peper added. “We’ve seen growth in our congregation – and growth in his congregation from being part of us.”
She explained that adding Passover to Holy Week celebrations makes sense. “It’s not just about Easter,” she said. “It’s important to realize what Holy Week is all about.”
Sparks agreed. “The Seder is about remembering the journey,” he said. “We often rush to Easter without taking the journey that got us there. That’s where the Seder and Good Friday come in. If we jump to Easter, we miss a lot.”
The pastor explained that both Holy Week -- and even the story of how Tree of Life came to St. Peter’s after Harvey -- show the mysterious ways God works. “God can bring redemption out of the greatest chaos,” he said. “We look back and see that God can do more than we could even imagine. This is one of those things that is an example of God’s saving grace.”
The event is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children 4 to 12 years old. Admission is free for children ages 3 and under. Space is limited, and registration is required.
For more information about St. Peter’s UMC and the upcoming Seder, visit stpkaty.org. To learn more about Tree of Life Messianic Congregation, go to treeoflifehouston.com.