Have Faith: The Island difference

Are congregations on the Vineyard different from those off-Island?

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Vineyard Assembly of God Pastor Matt Splittgerber, left, with the Rev. Bill Button, the fellowship's Southern New England executive director of church development. —Courtesy Liz Splittgerber

This past week I asked Island clergy and those connected to the Island Clergy Group if there was a difference between their experiences with congregations off-Island and their congregations on Martha’s Vineyard.

The Rev. Matthew Splittgerber from Vineyard Assembly of God in Vineyard Haven responded,

“Most definitely, yes, there is a great difference between the congregation I served in upstate New York and the congregation I currently serve here on the Island. While people are people and share similar needs and aspirations regardless of culture and location, the two greatest differences have been the strong sense of community here on the Island, and the multi-ethnic nature of the congregation on-Island.

“Where I pastored before in upstate New York, only a quarter of the congregation lived in the small city where the church was located. The remainder commuted to church (as they did to work) anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, which translated into very little sense of community outside of the weekly services at the church. They were (and are) good people, but with the congregation literally 99 percent white, it tended to produce a monochromatic approach to Christianity and Christian ministry.

“When I was approached by Vineyard Assembly of God as a pastoral candidate, my wife and I were deeply impressed by the close-knit Island community — we love running into people on the Island, on the ferry, and even shopping on the Cape, and interacting with them outside of the context of a church service. We love the flavors and palate of multicultural ministry that the Island offers — especially the contributions of the Brazilian and Jamaican communities. That, along with the unique dynamism produced by a multi-ethnic congregation, attracted my wife and me to ministry here on the Vineyard.”

Pastor Splittberger also shared that his congregation planned recognition of a milestone at his church last Sunday. They were to host the Rev. Bill Button, the fellowship’s Southern New England executive director of church development, as they celebrated the burning of the church’s construction mortgage dating from 1993.

Wouldn’t we all like to have that celebration sometime?

The Rev. Bob Barnett, pastor of Faith Community Church, had this to say about differences: “I’ll answer this from the perspective of a conservative, Evangelical, Reformed, confessional Christian pastor. Undergirding my point of view is the conviction that truth about God and humanity, good and evil, comes from the Bible, which is inerrant.

“My last pastoral position was on the outer edge of the Bible Belt, in Northern Virginia (metro Washington, D.C.). My church fit the above description — conservative, Evangelical, and Reformed. Some similarities and differences that come mind are as follows:

“1) Both on- and off-Island parishioners have a natural motivation to understand God and experience meaningful spirituality. Our pursuit leads us to a variety of religious options and traditions, some far closer to truth than others.

“This is a two-sided coin: Multifaith approaches to spirituality promote unity (not uniformity) and tolerance, while allowing a great deal of confusion about what truth is. Off-Island, pastors with my perspective tend to lead their congregations away from ecumenicalism to participation only in activities with churches and groups that are compatible in theology and practice. Off-Island, the plethora of like-minded churches makes this easy.

“Contrast that with Martha’s Vineyard: Here, multifaith is emphasized but not fully defined. The Island clergy put relationships above doctrine, making it possible for me to make friends without denying my beliefs.

“However friendly other clergy are, the Island’s openness to differing religious and spiritual traditions tends to undercut the doctrinal unity within a congregation. For the churches I served here and off-Island, we try to distinguish essential doctrines from those that are not. This is far more difficult here than in Northern Virginia.

“2) In my opinion, when compared to anxious, perpetually busy Northern Virginia, the folks on the Vineyard are kinder, more likely to serve fellow congregants and those in need. The activist spirit on Martha’s Vineyard promotes awareness, cooperation, and innovation.

“My congregations in Northern Virginia and Martha’s Vineyard have had to learn to better interrelate the ministries of worship and evangelism with those concerned with social justice without compromise in doctrine or practice.

“3) Church attendance on the Vineyard presents a unique set of challenges. For some, the time and cost of travel to ‘America’ to shop or visit necessitates or encourages longer periods off-Island, usually on a weekend, which in turn, encroaches on Sunday worship.

“Unlike non-resort towns on the mainland, summertime brings to year-rounders a work-life pace that is different from mainlanders. Summer is not a break, people are absent from worship often because of work hours or plain old exhaustion.

“Vacation time is taken off-season, depending on school schedules. The frequent absences of many parishioners makes it difficult for congregations to get together, to bond and to fully assimilate newcomers into the fellowship. I found this to be much more difficult here.

“4) The geographical separation of our Island from the mainland creates a sense of isolation and powerlessness not generally present on the mainland. This manifests in a variety of ways (addiction, depression, promiscuity, loneliness, general health concerns).

“The adage ‘There are no secrets on Martha’s Vineyard’ seems true. This tendency for gossip is widespread and encourages people to not seek help from a pastor.

“The potential unity in a congregation is usurped by those who wish to keep their problems secret, or widely known. In my Island congregation, our tendency is to remain isolated or limit expressions of love in these matters to professional therapists.”

Bruce Nevin is part of the Quaker Meeting group on the Island, and wrote that he recognizes that “the annual tide of seasonal attenders has an effect.”

“This annual ebb and flow is also felt on the Cape, and in other tourist locations, but I think has a stronger effect here. (Certainly the change in general population is greater here: Cape year-round population is 40 percent of summer population (200,000/500,000), Martha’s Vineyard 20 percent or less at the peak (20,000/100,000-plus).”

The Rev. Sharon Eckhardt most recently served as interim pastor at the Federated Church in Edgartown, before the Rev. David Berube was named pastor. Her response: “I find that people on M.V. are more ‘open to the other’ in people. What I mean is that there is a welcoming of people who might look different or dress different, or have a different lifestyle from us.

“This is evident in the welcome given to visitors and new people to congregations here, as well as in the community outreach that takes place in Houses of Grace, community suppers/lunches, food pantry, etc.

“There is also an openness in the clergy community. I am so pleased, as a semiretired Lutheran pastor, to be part of a group that includes Christian, Jewish, and interfaith leaders. I have been honored to lead services at UCC, Methodist, Episcopal, and Baptist churches. Many of these congregations are comprised of people who have come from many faith traditions. We all acknowledge that we are loved by the same God.”

It sounds to me like the Island is a pretty incredible place to worship with an accepting community. Isn’t that what it’s all about, unconditional love?

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I almost can’t believe that I’m about to talk about the Island’s annual CROP Hunger Walk. This year it takes place on Sunday, Oct. 14, with walkers gathering at St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven at around 1 pm.

I talked with Woody Bowman, organizer of the annual event, and he reminded me that online giving is making up an increasing amount of monies donated.

Community groups and churches are getting organized already. Woody reports that teams of walkers from the following churches or organizations are being assembled with the hope that others will join in: Apostolic House of Prayer, Chilmark Community Church, Federated Church, First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, First Baptist Church, Good Shepherd Parish, Grace Episcopal Church, M.V. Hebrew Center, Interact and other student groups from MVRHS, Island Food Pantry, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, and United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard.

He said they’re always looking for other groups in the community who might be interested in forming a team for the CROP Hunger Walk, including restaurants and businesses.

So far, the Martha’s Vineyard CROP Walk has raised a total of $472,769.

Church World Service is the organization that puts together the community CROP Hunger Walks. According to their website, “CROP Hunger Walks help to support the overall ministry of Church World Service, especially grassroots, hunger-fighting development efforts around the world. In addition, each local CROP Hunger Walk can choose to return up to 25 percent of the funds it raises to hunger-fighting programs in its own community.”

On the Island, the local proceeds go to the Island Food Pantry and the Vineyard Committee on Hunger. You can register for the walk and make an online contribution at crophungerwalk.org/marthasvineyard.

If you have news for Have Faith, send it to connie@mvtimes.com.