Ecumenism and Interfaith Dialogue in Westwood
Joseph Scott, CSP
When the president of the Paulist Fathers invited me to join the staff of St. Paul the Apostle parish in February, 2007 I was interested in working with other churches and religious groups in our neighborhood. The reasons were largely personal. As a campus minister serving Catholic Centers at State University campuses for many years I’d experienced pleasurable relationships with ministers and rabbis. I’d belonged to numerous Campus Ministry Associations and University Religious Conferences. I’d also been privileged to spend a mind-and-heart opening sabbatical at Tantur, the Institute for Ecumenical Studies in Jerusalem, in the Fall of 1992. I’d always enjoyed getting to know people of religious traditions other than my own. I wanted to continue such personally enriching opportunities.
I soon discovered that Westwood is a unique neighborhood within Los Angeles, unlike any I’d lived in before. We are bordered by the UCLA campus and Bel Air to the North, Beverly Hills to the East, Brentwood and the Veteran’s Hospital complex to the West and Century City to the South. A large portion of the neighborhood’s population arrived from Iran after the fall of the Shah in the 1970’s. They are proud of their Persian heritage and the main commercial street, Westwood Avenue, contains more store signs in Farsi than English. Synagogues far outnumber Christian churches and a Zoroastrian community struggles to preserve its unique traditions as their children discover the attractions of an American/Southern Californian lifestyle. The Los Angeles Temple of the Latter Day Saints, one of the most imposing religious centers in the city, is my closest neighbor.
In the days immediately after my arrival in Westwood I stopped by to introduce myself to the pastors of other Christian churches. They were friendly, interesting and busy people. Several of them mentioned the challenges involved in ministering to a neighborhood where Christians were a minority. I discovered that there was no neighborhood clergy association similar to those in which I’d participated in other parts of the country, but everyone I talked to seemed interested in forming one.
Within my first month of the parish staff I also ventured to the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center downtown to introduce myself to Fr. Alexei Smith, the director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Since one of the mission directives of my religious community, the Paulist Fathers, is to work for unity among Christians and a deeper understanding among people of different faiths. I offered to be available for any opportunities in this area. Fr. Smith soon invited me to be one of four representatives of the Archdiocese to the Interreligious Council of Southern California. The IRC was founded in 1969 as an association of Protestants, Catholics and Jews but now includes participants from more than fourteen world religions.
Before long I was attending bi-monthly meetings of the Council. Its members include the local representatives of the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Baha’i Community, the Board of Rabbis, the Buddhist Sangha Council, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Islamic Center, Sikh Dharma, the Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, the Southern California Ecumenical Council and the Vedanta Society.
As a member of the Interreligious Council I’ve served on the community outreach committee and been on the planning team for two annual retreat days. These gatherings have provided a wonderful opportunity to share, listen and get to know one another. This year, while enjoying the hospitality of Sisters of Social Justice at their Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino, we spent a morning discussing the question: What resources does our tradition provide us when bad things happen to good people? The previous year we had reflected on our different understandings of what happens after death.
Soon I found myself attending events such as “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” at the Skirball Cultural Center in the Fall of 2008, and a “Celebration of Hope” at the Islamic Center of Southern California on September 7, 2008. Listening to reflections on the meaning of hope from representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim communities enabled me to appreciate more deeply the wisdom we have to offer one another when drawing from our respective religious traditions.
A high point of my participation in the Interreligious Council was the opportunity to host the Council’s celebration of its 40th year of existence on October 15, 2009. My own St. Paul the Apostle faith community welcomed participants to this event which featured a talk by IRC founding member Lucky Altman-Lynch, music by the Temple Bhajan Band and a video presentation of 40 years of IRC events produced by Brother David Stump of the Los Angeles Vedanta Society.
Attending IRC meetings and events had taken me into every part of the Los Angeles area, but after a year at St. Paul’s I was continually aware that I’d had little contact with the Christian churches in my own neighborhood. The weeks and months had passed without acting on my best intentions to follow up the initial visits I’d made my first week at St. Paul’s. One day in the summer of 2008 I was discussing this with a member of our parish staff, Claire Henning. Claire also had a strong desire to develop a better relationship with our local churches. We decided to invite the local pastors to a breakfast to get acquainted and discuss whether we wanted to meet on a regular basis.
Our first gathering occurred over bagels and coffee on October 24, 2008 and included Rev. Susan Klein from St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Rev. Peggy Kron from Westwood Presbyterian, Rev. John Woodall from Westwood United Methodist, Pastor John Rollefson from The Lutheran Church of the Master, Rev. Kirsten Linford from the Westwood Hills Congregational (UCC) Church, Rev. Mark Krause from Westwood Hills Christian Church and Fr. Alexei Smith.
In the course of our meeting St. Paul the Apostle Church offered to host an ecumenical worship event to observe the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. With the enthusiastic participation of every one of the churches we gathered at St. Paul’s on the evening of January 21, 2009. The pastor of St. Paul’s, Fr. John Ardis, presided. Members of our church choirs joined together for the first time and Professor S. Scott Bartchy, the Director of the Study of Religion at UCLA, spoke of the challenge Jesus presents to all religious traditions. What was most exciting about this event was the enthusiasm voiced by the members of our congregations who came and participated. They liked that we were doing something together and wanted to do more of it. On January 17, 2010 our “second annual” prayer for Christian Unity occurred with St. Alban’s Episcopal as the hosting church, music provided by all our choirs and a sermon by Rev. Kirsten Linford of the Westwood Hills Congregational Church. We were pleased that members of every one of our congregations attended the prayer and stayed for the cookies and conversation afterward.
Mutual Support: A Treasure Worth Seeking
In Advent, 2008 St. Paul the Apostle invited pastors of the local Christian churches to proclaim the Scripture for our annual Advent festival of readings and carols. Representing St. Paul’s, I in turn accepted an invitation to participate in St. Alban’s festival of readings and carols. In Advent 2009 schedule conflicts made it impossible to repeat this exchange, so we decided to work together on a booklet of short reflections on the Sunday readings of the Advent and Christmas seasons. Copies of “Christmas in Westwood” were made available to all our congregations at the beginning of Advent. On October 25, 2009 I was pleased to accept the generous invitation of Pastor Deborah Andersen of the Lutheran Church of the Master to preach to her congregation on Reformation Sunday. This was certainly a highpoint of my own 37 years of pastoral ministry!
Our ecumenical activities as an association of Westwood Christian churches are very much in the beginning stages. We’re still looking for ways to involve our respective church communities in the getting- to-know-one-another process in which the pastors have been engaged. But already friendships have begun to develop among us. One of the most enjoyable events of the past year was a Memorial Day barbeque for the neighborhood church leaders hosted by the pastor of the Westwood United Methodist church, John Woodall, and his family. It provided an appreciated opportunity to relax at the end of a busy year and get to know each other better.
Whatever the future may bring in terms of common projects or endeavors, the support these friendships are providing as we face the common concerns of our neighborhood has already proved a treasure worth seeking.
Fr. Joe Scott, CSP, serves as associate pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, a suburb of Los Angeles, CA.