Can we all just get along?

The interfaith Neighborhood Convention celebrates 120 years of understanding.

Photo by Michael Cummo

Founded on November 13, 1894, as a means of bringing the various Christian churches on Martha’s Vineyard together in understanding and, possibly, friendship, Neighborhood Convention has a long history. Some things have changed — they no longer have the daylong meetings that often stretched into evenings — and some things have remained constant and have become tradition.

That first year, several local churchmen led by the Reverend Willard Packard, concerned with hostility and bitterness among Christian denominations, made a plan for a “neighborly” meeting, hoping to bring about some way of communicating and sharing their differing forms of the faith.

Although few of those early years are documented, events have been preserved, including the “programme” from January 11, 1898, which was actually printed (most notes from early days are hand-written) by E. H. Manter’s Job Press. It lists an opening Devotional Service, Business, the Reading of Records, the day’s Topic, a noontime “Collation” with beverages furnished “by the ladies of the church,” with another session continuing on throughout the afternoon. Current meetings follow nearly the same schedule, with the change from Topic (which included several papers, written and read by various pastors) to presentations and discussions by invited speakers, few, if any, read from written texts.

Another program, from 1914, noted that the devotional service was led by the Rev. Oscar E. Denniston of Oak Bluffs. Many names still familiar on Island appear over the years. In 1932, lay person Sarah Burt presented a paper entitled, “The Home of Yesterday.” Mrs. Arthur Hillman’s paper was on relations between home and church. Thanks were “extended to the entertaining church for cordial greetings and hospitality.” This custom continues today.

At the 20th anniversary celebration, charter members were listed: Miss Lucy Palmer Adams (one of the famed Adams sisters who had a tea room in Chilmark), Mrs. Norman Johnson, Mrs. Walter I. Jenny, Mrs. William Look, and Mrs. Nellie G. Vincent. Apparently, Lucy and Nellie were allowed to use their own first names.

A hand-written history, by Mrs. Edna C. Langille, is a valuable memoir:

“I can remember when the Baptist Church at Edgartown had some thoughts about union in thought and action of the churches in Edgartown and perhaps all over the Island. They felt, particularly the ministers of the time, that there was very little exchange of ideas or friendship between the Methodist and the Baptist churches. Each saw the others going to church and that was it.

“There was no Catholic church in Edgartown at that time (I doubt if Episcopal or Congregationalist either) or in 1890, when I was born.

“So they felt [a need] to meet up-island, for example, or in other towns and learn from one another ideas, friendship, religious beliefs, and so forth. “So my people went with horse and buggy — no autos when I was 9, and no summer folks — and no one would ever miss the Neighborhood Convention.”

She added, in the margin, “We have gained much. What have we lost?”

It is hoped that the animosity, misunderstandings, bitterness, and mistrust that inspired the founding of the Convention were among those things lost.

The Christian aspect of the group has since expanded to include all houses of worship on the Island, and with the addition of the Hebrew Center, “ecumenical” has been replaced by “interfaith.” The tradition continues that all moneys collected at meetings go to Island charities.

At the most recent meeting of Neighborhood Convention, held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, secretary Sofia Anthony cited the Reverend Harry Butman’s statement at the 50th anniversary of the convention: “We must refrain from emphasizing differences. Brothers must dwell together in unity.”

The program was a presentation by Dawn Bellante from Vineyard House. She described the history and the progress made by Vineyard House, which will be moving into newly constructed buildings in December.

Upcoming Neighborhood Convention meetings will include several programs which have become traditional. On December 2, The Minnesingers will present a preview of their Winter Concert at Trinity United Methodist Church on the Campground, beginning at 11 am.

The final meeting of the year will be held in June at The Yard, when they will present a view of their upcoming summer season.

Check local listings for meetings in between. Neighborhood Convention meets the first Tuesday of each month, at various houses of worship, and features programs of interest to Islanders.