Christian unity: after the kumbayah moments

Most Christians remember with fondness their “kumbayah” moments: the times when we were all working together toward a common purpose and God seemed to have “kum-bay” in such strength that it was impossible for “yah” to resist the call to a goal, a passion, to God himself.

One white professor in this city had his moments as a youth working in John Perkins’ organization in Mississippi. He has focused his career on teaching about and helping to build “reconciling communities” where others can enjoy similar experiences.

Campus Christian fellowships are often the “kumbayah” spot for young people. Tres Dias or Cursillo retreats sometimes provide them for their elders. (And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so little sleep is involved in many of these activities. Perhaps seeing others clearly isn’t the easiest way to see them with love …)

For those of us who grew up in Christ in the Northeast, those “kumbayah” moments probably happened during worship at one of the annual Congresses of The Evangelistic Association of New England, later known as Vision New England.

At Congress, some 6,000 to 12,000 Christians from all six New England states would gather at the region’s largest convention center for three days of teaching, training, worship, and (of course) sanctified shopping among some hundred or more Christian vendors.

I was Director of Communications for EANE/VNE, so I had the numbers to back up what anyone could guess from the speaker rosters, which could include a range from Charles Stanley to Henri Nouwen in a given year. Our guests came from more than 1,500 churches in up to 70 different denominations. Everything from independent fundamental to liturgical to independent pentecostal. And for those three days, we felt like we were in heaven. And our speakers all said they’d never seen anything like this anywhere else.

Then I moved South, where all the women are steel magnolias, all the men play golf, and all the children are above average in their “Sword drills.” In the South, even though there are gadzillions of storefront churches, and you might think they would like to gather together for support and nurture, churches huddle pretty much by denomination. You gather as Methodists, Baptists (Cooperative or Southern or General Association of Regular), Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ. Your city might have a pastors’ fellowship (or two or three or four, divided by race or history or politics or theology). But in union we aren’t strong. (Oops! hymn for another time and place.)

And so you find yourself looking backward with longing … and looking even further south, to the amazing unity among churches in some Argentine cities … and ask yourself: Can this ever happen here?

I truly believe it will have to be a pastor-to-pastor movement, as it is in Argentina. And so, if it is something that matters to laypeople like myself, we will have to pray, as Jesus did:

“I pray … that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17: 21)

Where have you seen Christians working in unity? What happened?

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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