Martha’s Vineyard churches share service

A festive, reverent, and fun ecumenical service and celebration takes place at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs this Sunday, Sept. 5, at 11 am. A group of Island churches representing several denominations is sponsoring the event, which features the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris, retired Suffragan (Assistant) Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts as guest preacher, and which will raise funds for relief to Gulf Coast residents impacted by the BP oil spill. At her consecration in 1989, Ms. Harris became the first woman bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion and is known as a strong advocate for diversity within the church and civil rights and equality for all.

“It Isn’t Easy Being Green” is the theme for the family-friendly event that will emphasize the preciousness and fragility of creation and our responsibility to care for the environment. The service will have musical inspiration from Wes Nagy with a jazz ensemble, drummers from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, and a choir led by Phil Dietterich. Topping it off will be a free cook-out and community potluck on the Tabernacle lawn.

The multi-faceted gathering also honors the life and ministry of the late Massachusetts Bishop John Burgess, the first African-American bishop in the United States. He and his wife, Esther, attended Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven for years and inspired many with their dedication to civil rights, equality, and justice. Grace Church now memorializes the Burgesses by hosting notable African-American speakers and holding a summer Evensong at Trinity Chapel, which this year is combined with the Tabernacle service.

“John and Esther would be the first people to be supportive of this event,” said Betty Rawlins, co-chair of the Grace Church Burgess Committee. “Each of them was a strong advocate for justice and positive ecumenical relations.”

The Rev. Robert Hensley, rector of Grace Church, echoed her thoughts and said that the empowering of disenfranchised workers by supporting the Gulf Coast fishermen would have been very important to the Bishop.

Organizers chose to raise funds for Gulf Coast relief because of the profound losses families there have experienced and the devastation of their lives, livelihoods, and heritage. Contributions will go to Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana, which is working to help out-of-work residents with basic needs including groceries and fuel.

“It’s going to be an ongoing concern until the clean-up is completed and even beyond,” said Mr. Hensley.

“It’s near and dear to our hearts here,” said Wes Nagy, musical director at Grace Church. “A lot of us are fishing aficionados. We know if it happened here what a dramatic change in people’s lifestyles there would be.”

He added that all the musicians playing Sunday were pleased to sign on to support the churches and the effort to aid the Gulf Coast.

Sure to appeal to Islanders as well is the “Being Green” theme that reflects an initiative of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts calling for its parishes to become environmentally responsible. Grace Church, for example, uses biodegradable food-serving materials, environmentally friendly cleaning products and energy-saving light bulbs.

“As we’re discovering at Grace Church it’s not easy for people to make that transition,” Mr. Hensley commented. Information about green products and environmentally responsible practices will be available at the Tabernacle. Of course, lunch will be served on biodegradable plates with recycling bins nearby.

Reverence and stewardship for the natural environment will be woven throughout the service from Bishop Harris’s sermon, to the worship itself which will use original Creation Liturgies from the Anglican Province of South Africa, including hymns with specially composed lyrics.

“The entire service will stress our responsibility as being co-creators and maintaining the integrity of creation,” Mr. Hensley said.

Worshipping together

Planning for the event began early this year when the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association invited the Island Clergy Association to use the Tabernacle for occasional services. A number of churches quickly began putting together an ecumenical celebration with broad representation.

“Our congregation welcomes the chance to worship side by side with Island friends and is grateful for the invitation,” said the Rev. Cathlin Baker of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. “While I am relatively new to the Island, I have noticed an increase in the spirit of ecumenism. Most of the churches participating have formed an ecumenical youth group, led by Edgartown Federated Church. This summer our church and Grace Church hosted a two-week summer camp. These are welcome opportunities to break our isolation and to share resources in effective ways.”

Ms. Baker expressed hope that the service would awaken people’s concern for the environment and bring in substantial contributions for Gulf Coast relief. “Churches can make a greater impact on social issues when working together,” she said. “Many of us felt helpless in the face of the Gulf oil spill and this event gives us an opportunity to feel like we have responded in some way.”

Participants should expect no staid hymns on this day, which will begin with a Call to Worship by Wampanoag drummers. Along with Mr. Nagy on keyboard, the 10-member jazz ensemble includes well-known artists Tommy Major, percussion; guitarists Mike Benjamin and John Zeeman; bassist Eric Johnson; Steve Tully on saxophone; cellist Jan Hyer and others. The choir will offer “What a Wonderful World” under Mr. Dietterich’s expert direction. During lunch the music will shift gears to Cajun and Zydeco tunes from the Gulf Coast area, and along with vocalist Linda Berg, Mr. Nagy hinted at other surprise guests. “It will be very entertaining,” he promised. “It’s definitely an Island all-stars band.”

Sponsoring parishes include: Grace Episcopal Church, Vineyard Haven; Trinity Episcopal Chapel, Oak Bluffs; St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Edgartown; Trinity United Methodist Church, Oak Bluffs; First Congregational Church of West Tisbury; The Unitarian Universalist Society, Vineyard Haven; Gay Head Baptist Church, Aquinnah. Members of the Federated Church, Edgartown, will also take part.

Everyone is welcome including children of all ages. A community picnic with hamburgers, hot dogs, and beverages provided free of charge immediately follows the service. Picnic-goers are asked to bring a side dish or dessert to share if possible, and blankets and/or lawn chairs.

Free picnic tickets are available at sponsoring parishes. For more information, to participate, donate, or make picnic reservations please call the Rev. Robert Hensley, 508-693-3440,