By Amanda Greene
Religion News Wilmington
They come from three different churches. One is an affirming congregation, welcoming gays, lesbians and supporters. One is the oldest African American church still standing in North Carolina. Another is a 90-year-old brick congregation off Market Street.
Though the congregations of St. Jude’s Metropolitan Community Church and the more petite Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian Church and Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church have some differences in beliefs and practices, they meet in the middle in song during the Christmas and Easter seasons.
Members of each church’s choirs are performing the soulful Christmas cantata “Magnify!” at7 p.m. Friday night, Dec. 9 at Pearsall Presbyterian, 3902 Market St. and at 7 p.m. Saturday night, Dec. 10, at St. Jude’s MCC, 19 N. 26th St.
The 40 choir members jostled for space on risers, chatted and joked excitedly before launching into “O Holy Night” with spot-on harmony at a dress rehearsal for the cantata Thursday night.
“This cantata really is what the Christmas season is all about for us,” said Pearsall member Joy Shortell just before a gospel version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
The churches started collaborating on their Christmas cantata five years ago for practical as well as neighborly reasons – Pearsall didn’t have enough choir members to carry an entire cantata, said Rev. June Highfill, Pearsall’s pastor.
Since then, the joint performances and activities between the churches have evolved into joint worship services, picnics and visits to nursing homes.
But the cantata is still the jewel of their collaboration.
“It’s such an unbelievable experience when these people come together at Christmas and Easter,” said Rita Todd, a member at Chestnut Street Presbyterian. “I look forward to it every year.”
At least for Pearsall Presbyterian, the road to acceptance of the partnership with a congregation that accepts gays and lesbians was rocky at first, Highfill said.
“When sexual orientation is understood in the church as something we’re born with and, like gender and race, not a choice,” she added, “the church affords itself the opportunity to enjoy yet another part of the wonderful diversity with which God has blessed us.”
This summer, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., of which both Chestnut Street and Pearsall are member churches, voted to amend the Book of Order to a broader statement about who could be ordained. The new definition of those called to church office included the statement: “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”
Rev. John McLaughlin, pastor at St. Jude’s, said the three churches’ Christianity directs their sisterhood.
“All three churches are followers of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The professional direction of the choir this year has allowed us to relax and focus on the meaning behind the words as one community in Christ.”