Neighborhood Convention: Focus on Fellowship
When differing religious beliefs have come together over the last 2,000 years, typically they have had a hard time of it. For example, today Western minds blanch at the sound of the word "Jihad," but what were Eastern minds thinking 800 years ago upon hearing the word, "crusade"?
Yet while Islam and Christianity, Israel and Palestine, and numerous countries divided by religious beliefs continue to wound each other, there are many examples of fraternity among different houses of worship.
The Martha's Vineyard Neighborhood Convention has been flourishing for over 100 years, uniting all faiths in fellowship and service to others.
"The requirement for membership is to show up at our monthly meetings," said Sophia Anthony, historian, archivist, and prime mover in the religious intergroup, which has been meeting for nearly 115 years, long before Roman Catholic Pope John XXIII championed ecumenism.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Founded on November 13, 1894, as a "neighborly meeting" to promote better relationships among all the congregations, The Neighborhood Convention is open to lay people and clergy from all congregations on Martha's Vineyard. Its focus is human and community needs, rather than dogma. Denominations represented include United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Baptist, Federated, Christian Science, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, and Jewish congregations. The group meets monthly, rotating among the different houses of worship on Martha's Vineyard.
On Tuesday, Jan. 6, at 10:45 am at The Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven, close to 50 people, including 10 clergy, gathered to break bread and take nourishment from fellowship and the discussion of topics that affect the human condition regardless of religious point of view. Following a devotional offered by Rabbi Caryn Broitman, the gathering discussed sustainable products with Islander Mark Martin, owner of Eco-Martha's Vineyard Bio-store.
Every month, contributions are collected with all of the proceeds going to about 20 Island charities from Habitat for Humanity and Hospice to substance abuse programs. Ms. Anthony said, "We have zero overhead. The host worship house provides coffee and desserts. We brown bag lunch and 100 percent of the proceeds go to Island needs. We are not religion-based. In the beginning it was, but within few years of its founding, the convention was broadened to include discussion of other topics from the U.N. to community solar greenhouses and substance abuse."
Ms. Anthony noted that Christian-centered perspective also led to including Judaism: "The Hebrew Center has been involved virtually since its beginning," she said.
Island religious life in the 19th and early 20th centuries was not immune from intolerance. In the early 1890s a clergyman named Willard Packer warned Martha's Vineyard against the hostility between different faiths. Shortly after, the Neighborhood Convention was established.
The Oak Bluffs Campmeeting Association takes its origins from a group of six Edgartown worshippers who, in 1835, led by Methodist Jeremiah Pease, set up tents for revival meetings. The revivals were ecumenical in spirit, attracting both Catholic and other Protestant sects. Thirty-five years later, Union Chapel was constructed as part of a real estate development project. It served as a nondenominational worship option at the Campground.
"Certainly having a place of worship was an important amenity for homebuyers then," said Chris Scott, director of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, which holds and manages Union Chapel.
In 1944, the Rev. Harry Butnam exhorted the Neighborhood Convention "to fight the good fight of faith and to refrain from emphasizing differences and from intolerance," and The Neighborhood Convention, marching to that drummer, focused on "dwelling together" by discussing topics related to brotherhood rather than on religion.
In February, the convention will meet at St. Andrew's Church in Edgartown to welcome Martha's Vineyard's Cancer Support Group, and in March at the Federated Church in Edgartown, where the theme will be, "Plan ahead: no one gets out alive."
The Neighborhood Convention meets on the first Tuesday of each month between October and June.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.