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Interview: “Easily the Favorite Service of Our Entire Church”

On April 5th, Maundy Thursday, Livonia Baptist Church will gather for a fellowship meal and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. That isn’t terribly exciting news, is it? Lots of Christians‚Äîeven a growing number of Baptists‚Äîset aside Maundy Thursday for worship, reflection, and Holy Communion. What is unusual, however, is that this predominantly white community in the Detroit suburbs will be joined by a sister church, Detroit’s Temple of Faith Baptist Church, an African American congregation. The two churches have held a joint Maundy Thursday service since 1975, when few Baptists observed the Christian year and even fewer were comfortable with the idea of worshiping with a congregation of a different race.

I have asked Dr. Gilbert Sanders, pastor of Livonia Baptist, and Rev. Rochelle Davis Jr., pastor of Temple of Faith, to share a bit about this tradition they share. Dr. Sanders has served at Livonia since 1989. Before that, he served churches in Illinois (where he was one of only two white ministers who were members of the NAACP) and Missouri. Rev. Davis, the founding pastor at Temple of Faith, has served that congregation for thirty-nine years.

How did it come about that Temple of Faith and Livonia Baptist has a tradition of worshiping together on Maundy Thursday?

Gilbert Sanders: The beginnings of worshiping together date back some thirty years with Pastors Clark and Davis. Elvin Clark was my predecessor at Livonia Baptist Church. So I will let Pastor Davis tell the beginning of the story.

Rochelle Davis: In the late 60’s‚Äìearly 70’s the Baptist State Convention of Michigan developed an Institute for Bible studies. Pastor Elvin Clark was one of the teachers, and I was a student in his class. In the class we discussed many subjects, but especially race relations.

Pastor Clark and I became close friends. On one occasion, when we were on the golf course, we discussed of having a fellowship between the two churches. We agreed to have a Good Friday Service. Pastor Clark discussed this with Livonia Baptist and I discussed it with Temple of Faith. Both churches agreed—with some resistance because this was something different for the two congregations.

In the mid 70’s we had our first Good Friday Fellowship, which was held at Temple of Faith Baptist Church. We agreed that the host church would give leadership to the worship service and the visiting pastor would preach. The host pastor and visiting pastor would administer the Lord’s Supper together. The fellowship influenced the two congregations to continue the tradition.

Two years later, Pastor Clark and I discussed the biblical arrangement of the Lord’s Supper celebration. Since Jesus first instituted the Lord’s Supper on a Thursday, we agreed to have the fellowship on the Thursday evening before Easter. We agreed to rotate the location of the fellowship and we called it the Holy Thursday Fellowship Celebration.

GS: 2007 will mark the thirty-third year of joint worship services during Holy Week. Today it may seem mild, but in the 70’s it was a radical idea. Both Clark and Davis stand as early giants in Baptist race relations.

Was there ever resistance to the idea? If so, how was it overcome?

RD: Because of the relationship between Pastor Clark and myself and the [success of the] first worship service between the two churches, it allowed us to overcome the few people who had some concerns.

GS: Yes, there was opposition, but it was always minor and limited to a very few. Even as late at the early 90s there were still a few who would not participate. Sometimes this even divided families. One family member would participate and the other family member would refuse. Some would attend when the joint service was at Livonia Baptist but would not go to Temple of Faith, saying that “they didn’t feel safe.”¬ù That reason was more politically correct than saying that they were prejudiced.

When I came pastor, I made sure that the congregation knew that racial prejudice was alive but not acceptable at church. It was still there, but no one admitted openly to it. Preaching may have helped to change attitudes, but also the joint services helped. The Sunday after the joint service, so many would report about how good the service was that it created a desire to find out what was going on. I have been here long enough to see all of the critics come around to participate. Today, I know of no opposition and only strong support for getting together.

What challenges have the two churches faced in learning how to worship with each other? What happens if differences arise in terms of outlook, values, expectations, or worship style?

GS: There have been no problems [of that nature]. The host church and pastor determine the overall style of worship. Both congregations enjoy the experiences as something new and unusual.

Today I only hear questions from those outside our church. For example, I have been told by a couple of other pastors that they wish they could do something like this in their church, but they are afraid of opposition. One pastor told me he would love to attend but he couldn’t since we share Communion together. I suggested that when we all get to heaven we would share Communion together. To that there was no reply, and the subject quickly changed. My gut feeling is that there is more opposition to a joint service among the races from ministers then there is from laity.

What spiritual attitudes contribute to making this annual event a success?

GS: Of course, the most basic spiritual attitude is faith in Jesus Christ and his teachings. There is one other significant factor. That is, we get to know each other. I emphasize not only attending [the joint service] but sitting with folk from Temple of Faith. I want people to start putting names and faces together. It is easy to be prejudiced against those we don’t know, or against just a mass of people. It is much more difficult to be prejudice to Bill, Mary, Jim, and Frank. People have to learn other people by name and personality. That is why we have a dinner and emphasize “fellowship” as much as worship. We never want it to be just a service of observation.

What have you learned from the other congregation? How have your people grown from the experience?

RD: The relationship—and friendship—between Pastor Clark and myself grew because of the interest we had concerning race relations. For example, Pastor Clark visited my home and I visited his. Whenever we would have major events such as ordination of deacons, weddings, etc., we would invite the other church to participate. Pastor Clark officiated at our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

The members from both congregations have grown in the relationship of understanding and appreciating each other culture. The Brotherhood of Livonia Baptist Church and Temple of Faith Baptist Church developed a healthy relationship. There was also a development of relationships between the members [of each church]. For example, attending retreats together at Bambi Lake [Michigan Baptist retreat and conference center]. The youth from each church have participated in a skating outing after Holy Thursday Fellowship, and the youth boys from each church participated in a softball fellowship.

One of the members at Livonia Baptist Church had a car business and helped one of the members at Temple of Faith, who was on a fixed income, get an excellent used car.

GS: I have learned that, no matter what color we are or what our background is, we share common loves, hopes, and fears. I have learned that black folks have more freedom in worship to express their inward spiritual experience.

Why is this an annual event tradition worth keeping?

GS: We who walk in the light are always one step away from the darkness. We worship to maintain where we have come and to advance into a closer walk with Jesus. Then, too, there are new members who must have a chance to experience what we have experienced. So today the joint worship service is easily the favorite service of our entire church.

RD: These events have become a tradition. Both congregations look forward to the Holy Thursday Celebration.

The Thursday before Easter is called “Maundy Thursday” from the Latin mandatus, meaning “commandment.” It is a reference to these words of Jesus, spoken on the night he instituted the Lord’s Supper:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (Jn 13:34-35)

I applaud both of these churches—and their pastors—for taking this commandment seriously.

If you’re in the Detroit Area and would like to attend, here are the directions. The street address for Livonia Baptist Church is 32940 Schoolcraft Road. The meal begins at 6:00, with worship following at 7:00.

technorati tags: communion, detroit, maundy thursday, lord’s supper, race relations, racial reconciliation, worship

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