The United Church of Christ at the Villages has only been a church for 10 years, but its short history is rich with examples of positive interfaith relationships in the Florida area alongside members of Jewish and Muslim faiths.
The Central Florida church has been acknowledged by the National Council of Churches for its interfaith work, with an Honorable Mention recognition from the NCC's Interfaith Relations Commission earlier this year.
When the church was first established in Oxford, Fla., services were held at a variety of locations. The New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom hosted the UCC at the Villages congregation from 2007-2010, the start of a lasting relationship.
The Villages church broke ground on a permanent home in 2009, celebrating the first service on Aug. 15, 2010, honoring its interfaith partner. The Rev. Drew Willard said that UCC at the Villages held a 'kadimah,' or pilgrimage, in which the UCC congregation carried the cross, Bible and chalice about a mile down the road to the new building – similar to how Temple Shalom had a kadimah to carry the Torah to its new temple of worship.
"We have a strong friendship with (Temple Shalom)," Willard said, "and we have a strong interfaith council with the Tri-County Interfaith Association." The church has partnered with Jewish and Muslim faith groups and leaders for various events; One example - a night of spiritual storytelling using passages from the Bible, Quran and Torah.
"It was warmly received," said Willard, who has a love of Biblical storytelling. "There's a sense of wholeness that comes out of that."
There was also an interfaith service in 2011, part of a nationwide response to a Quran being burned. Willard described the service as "a Christian service woven with elements of (the Jewish and Islamic) faiths. It allows the clerics to praise in their fashion and read from scripture."
Willard is the church's second pastor, succeeding founding pastor the Rev. C. William Wealand in April 2010. The church was formed after 30 people responded to a call in 2003, and by December 2005 a charter with 94 signatures was in place to form the United Church of Christ at the Villages.
Open and affirming is part of the church makeup. Several congregation members are heterosexual seniors with gay children, friends or relatives, Willard said. "That's been part of our history from the start."
The National Council of Churches is now looking for nominees for the 2012 Interfaith Engaged Congregation awards. Details are posted on the Global Ministries website. Churches have until Dec. 31, 2012 to apply.
"The Interfaith Engaged Congregations Awards is a way to highlight the many ways in which congregations that are a part of the communions of the National Council of Churches are actively engaged with other faith traditions in their communities," said the Rev. Karen Georgia A. Thompson, the UCC's minister for ecumenical and interfaith relations. "The initiative is going into its second year and there is much energy and excitement to receive and learn more about what congregations are doing... We have much to learn about our neighbors, and this is one way to learn and to find best practices that will be helpful to our churches."