Sharing Faith: Ecumenical Trio Lead by Example
January 2019 on the front steps of St. Peter's Basilica. The pastors on the front row are Father Nolan Lowry (St. Edward’s Catholic Church), Mishi (guide for the trip), Rev. Jason Smith (FUMC Athens), and Rev. Kyle Henderson (First Baptist Church).
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
Ecclesiastes 4:12 teaches: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” In Athens, Texas, three men are banding together to show the positive impacts they can make together. While they are all pastors of different faiths, this trio believes that they should celebrate their common belief in God and unite to support their community.
Not long after Pastor Jason Smith arrived to lead FUMC Athens in 2015, he learned of an amazing tradition -- the Christmas Parade.
“Every year, the first floats in the parade are all of the churches,” he said. “We all get together to tell the Christmas story.”
Dr. Kyle Henderson, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Athens, approached him to join, and Smith jumped at the chance. While preparing for the parade, leaders of area churches gathered over breakfast.
“We’d talk and get to know each other,” Smith said. “It was a nice way to start a ministerial alliance that didn’t exist before. We started discussing ideas, ways we could do things together.”
One of the ever-present voices in the conversation was Fr. Nolan T. Lowry at St. Edward’s Catholic Church. He came to Athens around the same time as Smith.
“We both came to Athens the same summer, and we were the new kids on the block,” Lowry recalled. “Kyle introduced us to each other. Jason and I are about the same age. We both went to really good seminaries, and being young pastors, we both had a lot of new ideas.”
All three men realized that they had a lot in common. “We’re united in the fact that we don’t see each other as competition,” Lowry said. “We all have the same goals.”
In fact, Lowry and Smith were just what Henderson was hoping would arrive in Athens. He has been a pastor there for 23 years, joining when he was 36 and there were no longer ministerial alliances in the city.
“Trust had been broken and people separated from each other,” he said.
Henderson, however, came from a town where different Christian denominations worked together and wanted that to happen in Athens. “I’d been banging on that nail for a long time, trying to find some way,” he said. “When churches don’t love another, it nullifies the Gospel.”
Henderson believes that churches are called to demonstrate true love – and an important way to do that is to start with each other. “To me, it’s the first and only thing to do if we want to stay relevant in the world,” he said. “If we’re in the infinite game, it’s not whether my church wins and your church loses. We have to help each other out.”
Henderson started off the effort by inviting others to join in First Baptist’s annual trip to the Holy Land.
In January 2017, FUMC Athens, First Baptist and St. Edwards joined for a 10-day journey. About 38 members of the three congregations signed up to tour the places where Jesus walked and see the scripture come to life.
“It was a big hit, so we set up another one in 2018,” Smith recalled. “We had 42 come on the next trip.”
Earlier this year, members of the three churches headed to Rome. Fr. Lowry, who had studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, guided attendees on the trip through the Vatican.
“Rome should be a place of pilgrimage for all Christians,” Lowry said.
In both Holy Land trips and on the voyage to Rome, the three religious leaders took turns at the microphone while in route to their various destinations.
“We would pass it around and tell what we were going to see that day, what each of our churches believe, and we’d have a lively discussion,” Smith said. “People could see what we have in common and our slight differences.”
The church members learned and shared on those rides. “We had some lively debates,” Lowry said. “The people really appreciated it. I don’t think this actually happens enough.”
While abroad and at home, the trio models by their own actions the importance in coming together.
“Even though we believe something different, we can support each other,” Smith said.
Lowry agreed. “We’re friends outside of pastoring our churches,” he said.
“It’s very special,” Smith added. “We all know each other and can joke around with each other.”
When Hurricane Harvey struck, the three churches decided to create one united effort to help victims of the storm instead of working separately. “We’re stronger together,” Smith said.
They also banded together when tornadoes hit Canton shorty after Harvey and even made banners reading “Athens Churches Together” or ACT. They are continuing to plan future outreach efforts together.
Smith recognizes that different denominations of Christianity often remain separated. “We want to combat that and do more together,” he said. “We don’t care what church you go to. Just go to a church. We want to make sure the community is served – and that the community is served through church.”
“We’ve also been very close to each other in different times,” Lowry added. “There have been tragedies in Athens, where we all came together in support of each other. It’s important for people to see that.”
FUMC Athens, First Baptist and St. Edward’s recently got involved in the African American Ministerial Alliance and attended an event with the organization last January.
“We had a wonderful discussion,” Smith said. “We’re trying to tear down boundaries. That’s something we’re all trying to do together. I love seeing the borders we have, the walls we’ve built up, start coming down.”
Lowry is looking forward to seeing the relationship continue to grow. “I’d like to see us continuing our outreach,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly what that will look like, but we have such a strong faith connection. And we can use that as a springboard.”
God has called all three men to love His children, Smith explained.
“We can be the church together – whether we agree or disagree on personal beliefs,” he said. “They’re not beliefs that can keep us from serving the community together.”
Henderson agreed. “This is the right, theological, moral and loving Jesus thing to do,” he said. “What’s important is being obedient together, loving Jesus together.”
He hopes all churches, everywhere adopt that thought and put it into action. “If we cannot love each other, we cannot stand up in the world and offer Jesus as a solution,” he said. “We have to love each other at higher levels that we do now. This should grow in every community until we adore each other in Christ.”