Pictured above (back row): Rev. Andy Switzer, St Agnes Catholic Church; Rev. Dr. Rudy Bropleh, Lead Pastor Asbury United Methodist Church; (front row): Pastor Pam Boomer, Asbury United Methodist Church; Reverend Dr. GT Schramm, Trinity Episcopal; Pastor Karen-Erksine-Valentine, Shepherdstown Lutheran Parish; Reverend Dee-Ann Dixon, New Street United Methodist Church.
It was a cold, wintry, Wednesday night but inside, at the Trinity Episcopal church in Shepherdstown, the atmosphere was anything but chilly. Friends greeted each other; shy newcomers were introduced all around. The Reverend GT Schramm took the lead to welcome everyone with opening prayers and hymns, but the main speaker of the night was Pastor Pam Boomer from the Asbury United Methodist Church. And she lived up to her name! She had the congregation laughing and clapping amid shouts of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” as she preached about the need for all of us to be good neighbors. “Who is our neighbor?” she asked, “not just the folks who live next door but our townsfolk, our county, our state, our country and our world.”
Reaching Out To Connect
Pastor Boomer suggested we exchange contact information with someone we didn’t know, perhaps the person sitting next to us in the pew. She ended her sermon by reciting the lyrics from the Diana Ross song, “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand; Make this world a better place, if you can.” By this time, the whole congregation was reaching across the pews grabbing hands or arms with each other. It was a rousing, inspiring service.
Each Wednesday for six weeks leading up to Easter, a different church played host to a Lenten prayer service. but there was a catch — a preacher from yet a different church led the service, which is why Pastor Boomer was before the altar at Trinity, not Reverend Schramm. These services were organized through the Shepherdstown Ministerial Association, which has been active in Shepherdstown for more than 40 years to forge connections between the many churches in the community.
The interfaith association has gone through periods where it has been more active than others but the Covid pandemic was a real downer for the group. The Reverend Gusti Newquist arrived at her post at Shepherdstown Presbyterian about five months before the pandemic shutdowns and Father Andy Switzer from St. Agnes Catholic church arrived a couple of months into it. They had few opportunities to get to know their parishioners or their neighbors in person. But these ministers and their parishioners, judging by these packed Wednesday services, came out of Covid isolation seeking connection. They are all united in their commitment to this ecumenical movement. Reverend GT Schramm calls this Interfaith group of ministers “The Church of Shepherdstown.”
A Rebirth After The Trial Of Covid
I became aware of the Interfaith ministries when they held a prayer service for Ukraine soon after the war broke out. It was a highly moving service and it seemed to revitalize the interfaith movement. “The gift of Covid,” the Reverend Dee-Ann Dixon of New Street United Methodist church noted, “has been a fresh kind of spirit going on. People wanted more of these kinds of gatherings.”
“Churches are done with division,” according to the Reverend Karen Erskine-Valentine of the Shepherdstown Lutheran Parish, “people are longing for connection and unity; this is speaking to that.” The pastors say they love working together and have become good friends. “One of the joys was when I, a Lutheran woman, preached at an Ash Wednesday service at a Catholic Church. That’s a big deal. It’s a vision of hope” for the Reverend Erksine-Valentine.
All these efforts are about making us better neighbors and better ministers, too, according to Father Andy Switzer of St. Agnes Catholic Church. “As I went from church to church, seeing the diversity of music, preaching and worship styles, we were learning from each other, it helped us grow as pastors,” He said. “We are called to work on unity.”
The Reverend Gusti Newquist, pastor of Shepherdstown Presbyterian, was honored to preach at Asbury United Methodist Church, “It filled something in my soul that had been missing.” She added, “We are on the cusp of something really exciting for the next generation.” Going forward, a vacation Bible school is being planned which would be for all ages, including adults and a choir festival is also in the works.
Susan Mills is an awarding-winning broadcast journalist who traveled around the world and across America during her career at CBS News and the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. She now calls Shepherdstown her home.By Susan Mills