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One under God: Ministers of varying faiths meet monthly
Clergy members learn from each other, plan community projects
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ERIN O. SMITH | The Times Bill Coates, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Gainesville, and the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, rector at Grace Episcopal Church, share stories with one another at the First Baptist Church. Coates, Higginbotham and other Gainesville pastors meet once a month.

What sounds to be a setup for a joke, really is far from it.

More than a handful of clergy members from different denominations gather the second Wednesday of every month at the IHOP in Gainesville. They come together in hopes of uniting the community and knowing each other better.

“Sometimes we get together and talk and enjoy each other and sometimes we plan a community service or we plan some joined thing like working on a Habitat (for Humanity) house together,” said Bill Coates, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville.

And this meeting of ministers is not a new initiative. The idea for the meeting of ministers came from Coates, who moved to Gainesville about 17 years ago.

“I came from a community in South Carolina where a group did that,” he said. “It was very rewarding and it brought churches together.”

Eventually, Coates and the pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church on Washington Street started meeting. The gathering grew throughout the years.

Now the meetings include clergymen and clergywomen from Gainesville First United Methodist Church, the chaplain at Brenau, First Presbyterian Church and Grace Episcopal Church.

“When you add up the churches membership, it is several thousand people who we represent in a way for the city and for the county and that is a powerful statement,” said the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, rector of Grace Episcopal Church.

Relationship trumps doctrine

The power of joining forces can be seen throughout Gainesville in a multitude of ways.

One way is the three Habitat homes members of First Baptist and Grace Episcopal have completed.

“To come together around the Habitat build, particularly, is really really important,” Higginbotham said. “It is something that is embodied and doctrines don’t get in the way.”

For the first time this summer, all five churches and St. Michael Catholic Church will construct several Habitat homes.

“Those churches will build several houses together with the possibility of doing 25 Habitat homes together over the next several years,” Coates said.

And physically building a home together helps churches build connections and conquer the divide of doctrinal stereotypes.

“We are having to remind folks and tell them that relationship trumps doctrine every single time,” Higginbotham said.

That trump card is apparent during Lent. The churches have a weekly Wednesday community service and luncheon during the 40 days and night before Easter. In fact, churches swap ministers, making sights such as a Catholic priest speaking to a Methodist congregation the norm during the Lenten season.

The Rev. Terry Walton, senior pastor of First United Methodist, preached March 25 at Grace Episcopal for the noon Lenten service. He delivered the homily, set in the full morning prayer Anglican service and observing the feast of annunciation, Higginbotham said.

“You get this combo of two different traditions that play of off each other,” he said.

Coates had the honor of preaching March 4 at St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville. He informed the congregation and the Rev. Monsignor Jaime Baronathat he loves Pope Francis.

“I said ‘If he keeps going in the direction he’s going, I just may become a priest,’” Coates said. “And I turned around and looked at Father Barona and he said, ‘You already are one, my friend.’

“That is the type of relationships we have here between these six churches and it is one of the great blessings in my life.” 

All from the same home

Churches crossing the doctrinal divide has not always been a plausible scenario.

Growing up in a Baptist church in Arkansas, Higginbotham recalls a time when denominations were ridged.

“It was fascinating to me that (Gainesville) was so open to it, because I grew up in a different denomination and I knew what it felt like to be kind of limited; put in a box,” the priest said.

Higginbotham explained different denominations just have different focus points which sets them apart.

“So much of this is man-made,” he said. “These different denominations (are) man-made. But to view them as orders and flavors, it gives you more opportunity to reach out and have a bigger perspective on things.”

Each church, however, started out with the same base. The clergy explained for centuries, the Roman Catholic Church dictated the rules of Christianity. Then the church split into Catholic and Orthodox, Eastern and Western Churches. Finally, in the 1500s, the Reformation occurred, establishing the Protestant churches.

From the Catholic and Protestant churches, the denominations branched out, forming the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Anglican, Methodist and Baptists. Each denomination worships and interprets the Bible with minute differences. But they all maintain the same base belief.

“In the Gospel of John, it is called the high priestly prayer of Jesus and Jesus prays that ‘Father, I pray that they may be one,’ meaning all of his followers may be one,” Coates said.

Originally, the preacher thought that meant everyone would come together in one church.

“I don’t think that any more,” he said. “I think, let us be one in relationships with each other.”

And that is the message the ministers are trying to show in their monthly meetings — all denominations can truly love each other.

“All of us go back to the same home,” Coates said.