August 2, 2016
“These are my brothers and sisters!”
I hear this sentiment expressed repeatedly from individuals attending events affiliated with our up-and-coming ecumenical organization in Boston called UniteBoston. UniteBoston’s mission is to build relational connections throughout the diversity of Boston’s Christian community. There are many differences separating Christians, but with UniteBoston we focus on the shared faith practices that bring us together: worship, prayer, and missional service to the city.
While we are a large network now, with strong relationships in the Catholic, Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and Orthodox communities, starting a non-profit organization was never our intent. Rather, a group of young people and I noticed that there were so many great things happening around churches in the city, but little infrastructure to connect the events that were taking place with the people that might be interested in attending.
To address this, in September 2010, we started sending out weekly “UniteBoston” email newsletters with information about the various Christian events taking place in the city. Within a couple of months, over 1,000 people had added themselves to the newsletter! Additionally, a lot of local interest was emerging, and a leadership team began to form. Soon, the newsletter became overloaded with information submitted from the community, so we raised funds and built a website.
Over the next few years, UniteBoston continued to grow, eventually becoming a 501c3 non-profit in July 2012. In addition to our weekly Christian events newsletter, UniteBoston hosts monthly “meetup” events to build community and encourage people to go beyond their denominational walls to discover all that God is doing in Boston. During Lent last year, we coordinated a “Holy Week Pilgrimage,” which highlighted various worship services that were already taking place in the city. Two young men attended an Orthodox service for the first time on Good Friday, and were astounded by how they resonated with the liturgy.
Additionally, UniteBoston loves to see Christians come together to serve the city. We have a team of “UniteBoston Reps” who are working to build relationships with pastors and city leaders within specific neighborhoods in Boston. The UB Reps meet monthly as a collaborative “think tank” of God’s work in the city, and they mobilize churches together to discern a collaborative shared missional project for their neighborhood communities. We had our first BostonServe day last October, and we’re gearing up for a CityServe day on May 6, 2017 in conjunction with Catholics and Lutherans throughout New England who are coming together to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Truly, God is up to great things in Boston!
Throughout these initial years of our ministry, I have begun to discover something significant about ecumenism: While the Internet can be a powerful tool to bring Christians together, the real work of Christian unity comes down to relationships, which cultivate agape love between brothers and sisters in Christ. It was not until I sat down with brothers and sisters from other denominations and ethnic groups that God began to reveal my underlying biases and partiality towards my own tradition’s worship practices. Through my new friendships, God began to break down my boxes of how I understood Christ’s Church and God’s work in the world. This continues to be true for our leaders and participants in UniteBoston’s events – we’re discovering that Christ’s family is much bigger than we initially imagined!
In coming together across our differences, God does an incredible work in our hearts. We begin to identify ourselves primarily not as Catholic or Lutheran, for example, but as pilgrims on a journey following Jesus Christ. Our denominational distinctions matter, and they matter profoundly – but our differences come to be understood not as barriers for others to enter into my one “right” understanding of God, but rather as beautiful displays of the multifaceted heart of God. I am beginning to see that unity is a process by which the church is brought to maturity (Eph 4:13).
In light of the recent racially-charged events plaguing our nation, I lament with the families that have been affected with this violence and the reality of racial discrimination and injustice within our communities. Jesus models loving those who are difficult to love, and Jesus’ call to love our neighbor must be stronger than our innate tendency to fear and hate those who are different than us.
People in the world are searching for a vision of hope and transcendence beyond what they see. What they are looking for is found in the Church, as Christ’s work on the cross has fully destroyed the dividing walls of hostility (Eph 2:14.) Indeed, we are called to embody this ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19). However, if people look at the Church and only see us in tension with one another, then how can they believe that our message is about love? Ultimately, it’s as we embody Christ’s message of reconciliation that we will regain our ability to act in healing ways in situations that the world is wrestling with.
In addition to directing UniteBoston, Kelly Steinhaus studies urban ministry at Boston’s campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She lives in Brookline and enjoys outdoor activities such as hiking and bicycling.