by Sue Conrad Howes, West Swamp congregation
Over time, the Holy Spirit works, making the things that divide us seem so much less important than the things that unite us.
In 1847, a church split occurred over the style of coat worn by the pastor, keeping minutes at church meetings, and whether Sunday School was acceptable. We may laugh and even scoff at the topics that caused the split some 173 years ago, but the lines drawn during that split have been felt until just recently; in November 2019, Franconia Conference and Eastern District Conference voted to become one new conference, a reconciliation that went into effect in February 2020.
In the history books, the conference split was rooted in the history of two congregations: West Swamp Mennonite Church (which helped begin Eastern District) and Swamp Mennonite Church (which broke away from West Swamp and stayed with Franconia Conference). In the 19th century, West Swamp’s pastor John Oberholtzer was a leader in the 1847 division. The two congregations are now located just over a mile apart in Quakertown, PA.
As a celebration of the reconciled conference, West Swamp and Swamp congregations worshiped together for two Sundays in March 2020. On March 1, both congregations gathered at West Swamp, enjoyed breakfast together, and worshiped with Pastor Nathan Good of Swamp preaching. The next Sunday, the two congregations worshiped together at Swamp, with Pastor Michael Howes preaching, and a fellowship meal following the service. Members of both churches participated in Scripture reading, worship leading, and music at each service. Perhaps most importantly, communion was celebrated both Sundays, together.
The theme for the two services was reconciliation. On March 1, Pastor Nathan invited the congregations to evaluate our conflicts, acknowledging that we all have them. He encouraged each person to engage our conflicts, for God’s sake, and to commit to genuine love. “God is bigger than our disagreements and God’s love frees us to love people despite our disagreements,” Pastor Nathan said.
“God is impartial,” he said. “In a divisive time, we need to be reminded that God is the God of all people. God is not ours; instead, we are God’s.”
The next Sunday, Pastor Michael invited the congregants to reach out to those in our lives with whom we need reconciliation. Referring to the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau, Pastor Michael shared that it is not enough to hang back and let the other person make the first step. “Today the Holy Spirit is prompting you to initiate that reconciliation,” he encouraged. Pastor Michael focused on the ministry of reconciliation that all of God’s people are called to: “God says to us, ‘I want to make you an agent of reconciliation.’”
He acknowledged that the ministry of reconciliation is hard work. “Sometimes we need to say, ‘I forgive you,’ and other times we need to say, ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me.’”
From the joyful hugs and delightful connections made in the foyers to the active conversations that happened across tables at the meals, you would not have known that these two congregations ever battled with each other to the point of locking each other out of their church building.
Sometimes it takes a long time to partake in the ministry of reconciliation. While these two congregations will return to their regular places of worship next Sunday, both groups welcomed the opportunity to celebrate the work of reconciliation and to commit to being agents of God’s reconciliation into the future.