When Drew Willard's family moved into its South Plainfield, N.J., home the same week in 1958 as their Jewish neighbors, the two families hit it off immediately. Each wanted a fenced-in yard – so they put up one fence around both properties with a gate that led to the open fields behind them.
More than 50 years later, the Rev. Drew Willard has led the UCC at The Villages (Fla.) in a celebration devoid of division and fulfilling in faith. Worshiping the past seven years at various sites – including the past three at the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom a mile up the road – the UCC at The Villages took root in its new building Aug. 15.
"No more talk about 'when we get to the new building,' " says Willard joyously. "We had a mountaintop experience on Sunday."
Sumter County inspectors issued the church's certificate of occupancy just two days prior, which "turned out to be one of the luckiest Friday the 13ths you could imagine," says Willard. "We said amongst ourselves that if we couldn't get permission to do this, we were going to make the walk anyway. We still would have done an exchange of the cross, the chalice and the Bible in the narthex – like planting the flag on Mt. Everest," says Willard with a laugh.
The "walk" was a mile-long kadimah (kuh-DEE-muh), a pilgrimage of about 100 people from the temple to The Villages' new building. It followed a brief service at the temple where members of both congregations exchanged gifts. "We were singing songs like "Kumbaya" that first half-mile," says Willard of the march.
Once inside the new sanctuary, the sounding of the shofar (a ram horn used as a wind instrument) signaled a new era.
"Confirmed members and choir members lined up first," says Willard. "I presented the cross, Bible and chalice to the diaconate, and everyone had a chance to hold the elements." Jerry Fabian, building committee chair, presented the key to church moderator Phil Pierkowski, and the Rev. Dr. Bill Wealand, the church's founding pastor, offered the invocation.
"It was a wonderful way for my wife and I to visit with so many people with whom we shared five years of building the congregation, much less the building," says Wealand.
Willard's sermon included a recounting of the Sermon on the Mount. "We're neighbors and there's no fence between us now," he told worshipers. Reflecting on that moment two days later, he adds, "As I learn more about the Jewish religion, it helps me become a better Christian. The same holds true for learning about Muslims."
Members of the Jewish community sang a song of blessing, and communion was offered. Sheldon Skurow, spiritual leader of the temple, and Nancy Bell, a Villages member, read a verse from Exodus, alternating in Hebrew and English. Holding hands in song, celebrants closed the service by singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."
"Sunday was terrific, it was just … fantastic," says Skurow. "We were almost sorry to see them go." Skurow recalled his congregants' own journey from a temporary space to their new synagogue with a 4-mile kadimah that went past the site where The Villages church now stands. At that time, members of The Villages stood and cheered the synagogue's congregation.
On July 20, 2003, the Rev. Ben New planted the seeds for UCC at The Villages by calling a meeting. Thirty people attended and four years later – after holding worship in a Villages conference room, a storefront office, a Seventh Day Adventist church and the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom – the church rented the temple and purchased land for its own building. Ground was broken in August 2009.
The physical space of the new building reminds Willard of the temple. "The design of the sanctuary and narthex, with the fellowship hall off to the side, is actually the type of layout we have at our church building."
Willard, senior pastor at The Villages since May, traces the inspiration for the farewell event and the kadimah to his candidating service Feb. 21. "After that service, I met with the temple's music director, Rose Eberle. She invited me into their narthex for a demonstration of their acoustics." Eberle and Villages choir member MaryAnn Neder sang – and really struck a chord with Willard.
The opening of The Villages' new space does not mean a close to its relationship with Temple Shalom, says Skurow. "We've had an interfaith Thanksgiving service with them on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving the past few years, and a Methodist church and several others have joined us. In fact, Drew has suggested we have it at their church this year. "
The Rev. David Schoen, UCC's minister and team leader for Congregational Vitality and Discipleship, hails the UCC at The Villages as a rarity. "You just don't see a whole lot of this kind of thing anymore. They are to be congratulated on moving with such focus and intent to achieve a really beautiful facility within seven years. And the Florida Conference should be congratulated for having the foresight to purchase the land."
The UCC's Church Building Loan Fund provided UCC at The Villages with a $1.65 million construction loan.