Advent begins a new year in the Christian calendar. This year, for congregations on two continents, the season is also the start of a new relationship many years in the making.
By candlelight, and in two languages, Grace United Church of Christ in Frederick, Md., solidified a covenant Dec. 5 with a parish of the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland, a Protestant church body in central Germany.
They are now formally sister churches.
‘Act of the Spirit’
The journey toward partnership began when Grace’s minister, the Rev. Rob Apgar-Taylor, became friends with the Rev. Thomas Vesterling, pastor of the parish of Weferlingen. The latter includes six congregations with Lutheran roots. That was 12 years ago.
In 2017, the bishop of the EKM invited Grace’s choir to come to Germany for a five-city concert tour to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. “The people received us with such love,” Apgar-Taylor recalled.
In exchange, a group of German lay and clergy leaders came to the Central Atlantic Conference the next year for a symposium on racism and the church. Another friendship developed.
“In an unintentional act of the Spirit, the church council president from Weferlingen stayed in the home of the church council president from Grace,” Apgar-Taylor said. “A friendship was born that continues today. The governing bodies of the two church communities decided to explore a more formal agreement.”
They drafted a covenant in 2019, he said, but “COVID stopped the formal signing and celebration.”
Candlelight and Zoom
Finally, this Advent, the day arrived. It was 5 p.m. in Germany and 11 a.m. in Maryland when the churches each gathered — in person in their distant sanctuaries, and together, virtually, via Zoom.
“We shared songs, readings and sermons in both languages,” said Apgar-Taylor, who led the service with Weferlingen’s current pastor, the Rev. Karen Simon-Malue. Each parish lit candles arranged in an Advent wreath — or “Adventskranz” in German. Associate Conference Minister Shareesa Simpson-Rice of Central Atlantic preached and helped celebrate Communion.
The written covenant is meant to bind the churches in a special way.
“It’s an intentional attempt to be in relationship through prayers, shared worship, common mission projects, visits and more,” Apgar-Taylor said. He said their first transatlantic sharing of the Eucharist “was very well received. Both communities look forward to doing it more regularly.”
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