Christopher Lushis
Freelance Writer
October 17, 2023 // Diocese

‘Common Table’ Series Begins at USF

Christopher Lushis
Freelance Writer

As Jesus was gathered with His disciples on the night of the Last Supper, He prayed for unity – that all “would be one as He and the Father are one.”

While it is an unfortunate reality that there are many divisions within the Body of Christ, a new initiative has begun in Fort Wayne aiming to heal wounds and respond to the Lord’s heartfelt prayer for unity.

This new endeavor stems from a relationship between faculty and staff from the University of Saint Francis and Pastor Chris Norman of Grace Gathering Church in Fort Wayne. Norman, motivated by his love for Jesus and a desire to forge deeper bonds between Christians, humbly approached Catholics at Saint Francis last summer and asked if the university would consider taking part in PrayerWorks, a 24/7 prayer room within the Electric Works complex intended “for anyone to pray, encounter Jesus, and bring new levels of peace and unity in Fort Wayne, the region, and world.”

Photos by Christopher Lushis
Following the panel presentation, small groups discussed ways of growing in humility, openness, and understanding between denominations. Above, Father Thomas Zehr, Pastor of St. Mary in Huntington, shares his experiences and perspectives with his group.

As friendships formed and trust deepened between the groups, they discerned that the Lord was inviting them to do more. This led to the development of The Common Table series, which aims “to develop a posture of humility and teachability, acknowledging differences while centering on Jesus, building friendships and worshipping together (through prayers focused on what unites both groups), and embracing a shared call to repentance and forgiveness.” The first event of the series was held on Monday, October 9, at Saint Francis with the topic, “Is Unity Possible?”

Shema Culture, a group of musicians from Fort Wayne who led music at recent World Youth Day events in Portugal, started the event with a few songs of praise. A panel discussion followed, comprised of local faith leaders, including Father Brian Isenbarger, Sister Maria Gemma Salyer, Pastor Chris Norman, and Pastor Donovan Coley. The event was moderated by Megan Quigley, Assistant Director of the Assisi Program at Saint Francis.

The foundation of the night was not simply to work toward unity for unity’s sake but to authentically seek Jesus Christ and become more deeply united through Him.

Over recent months, the panel members have been meeting in preparation for these discussions.

Shema Culture

“We are brothers and sisters in Christ who all share a deep love for Jesus and a deep yearning for the unity He prayed for at the Last Supper,” Quigley said. “That was a major catalyst for us being here tonight and led to many moments of prayer, collaboration, and friendship. And within that context, a dialogue started to form about what we really believe, both in areas of deep agreement and also areas of disagreement. This led not to a debate but trying to reach an understanding together. We know that unity does not come about through any human power, but it is a gift of God, so we come here to be open to Him in this dialogue.”

The primary themes of the night centered on humility and understanding. Father Isenbarger, Parochial Vicar at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne, shared first, commenting on what is at the heart of his relationship with Jesus: the Eucharist.

“St. Francis of Assisi, in his writings on Holy Communion, said, ‘Look at the humility of God, Who hides Himself under the appearances of bread,” Father Isenbarger said. “The desire of Christ’s heart is to be with us, and as a priest, as I hold the host in my hands, I am reminded daily of how much He is willing to humble Himself; it also reminds me that I have a long way to go!”

Pastor Coley, the former president and CEO of the Rescue Mission, shared his appreciation for Father Isenbarger, whom he said has challenged him and also delighted him with his humor. Coley emphasized the importance of listening with openness – since even when Protestants and Catholics are using the same words they can mean very different things – as well as approaching the evening with the perspective of trying to better understand his brother (Father Isenbarger), sister (Sister Maria Gemma), and others. Quoting St. Paul, who implored the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he emphasized, “I am here to learn!”

Franciscan Sister Maria Gemma, Vice President for Catholic Culture and Student Life at Saint Francis, shared that her relationship with God is rooted in filial and familial affection.

“I see the Spirit of God alive and active in my brothers and sisters, in Chris and Donavan, and those I encounter – they are children of God, as I am,” Sister Maria Gemma said. “We have the same Daddy; we are family.”

Norman shared with forthrightness: “Quite a number of people have asked me how this [event] is going to work. A lot of people are very hopeful, and a lot of people are very skeptical. As mentioned, we are not seeking unity, we are seeking Jesus; unity will be a fruit or result. It’s a distinction but an important one.” He shared his desire to follow St. Paul, who came to “proclaim the testimony about God, knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” He emphasized, “We are not going to come together because of human wisdom or eloquence; we are only going to come together through the power of the Holy Spirit; our faith will rest on His power.” He also acknowledged that much of the animosity between Christians can flow from misunderstandings, indicating how crucial it is to recognize that not all preconceived notions are necessarily correct.

Following each round of commentary from the panelists, those in attendance were invited to share in small group discussions about their particular experiences of faith, relationships with Christians of other denominations, and ways of being challenged by the Lord to grow in deeper love, unity, and understanding.

These discussions allowed participants to explain where and how they pray, as well as why they pray. The small-group discussions also provided opportunities for hearing new perspectives and sharing experiences of encountering God’s transcendence.

One Catholic participant, who asked to remain anonymous, was struck by a comment Coley made toward the end of the final panel discussion. He said: “Pastor Donovan made the point that ‘God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.’ I thought that was an incredibly profound statement. It speaks to the beauty and gift of the Eucharist, as Jesus longs to give us the very depths of His love in the Blessed Sacrament. His comment helped me understand more profoundly why Jesus instructed St. Margaret Mary to receive holy Communion as a way of making reparation to His Sacred Heart; our open vulnerability to His love and our trust in His goodness is exactly what He seeks from us. I never really thought of my resting in the Lord through holy Communion or Eucharistic adoration as ‘giving God glory,’ but that’s exactly what Jesus says it is! Even though Pastor Donovan isn’t Catholic, the truth of the Lord regarding the Eucharist spoke through him and helped deepen my Catholic faith.”

Caleb Perkins, Vice President and Co-founder of Shema Culture, shared his response to the event, saying: “I sensed that the Lord was so pleased with the humility shown tonight! The imagery I got when I was praying about it was as if dust was being blown around off an old foundation and a new brick was laid upon it. I felt like Our Lord was saying that the dust is all the pain and hurt from divisions between Protestants and Catholics, being blown away by the breath of God, Who is reworking the foundation and bringing His bride back together in a way we’ve never seen before.”

The event was the first of a four-part series The Common Table plans to host. Additional events will take place throughout the next two years. Each event will focus on values the planning team has discerned to be essential in the movement for Christian unity.

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