The Servants of the Word: An Ecumenical Brotherhood of Disciples on Mission
I am a Roman Catholic who comes from the ‘Bible belt’ of West Michigan, a place where relationships between Catholics and Protestants are generally polite at best. There is certainly little sign of the sort of animosity that divides Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, but the overall mood seems to be one of indifference. Catholics live in their own little world, and likewise with Protestants. Few people, if any, seem to have much of a desire to see the two worlds merge. The most interaction between different traditions occurs in the context of attempted proselytism.
This atmosphere set the stage for my first encounter with the Servants of the Word during my junior year of college at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Servants of the Word are an ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. Their brotherhood traces its origins to the charismatic renewal of the 60’s and 70’s.
The Servants of the Word have answered the call to be in the world but not of the world in a way that is different from what someone coming from a Catholic background might expect of a lay brotherhood of single men. They choose to live in the midst of the people they serve, in normal houses and in normal neighborhoods. Yet, there are many aspects of their life that are similar to the Catholic ideal of the religious life. Many of the ideals of their life are based on the principles of monastic orders within the Church. The Servants of the Word share a life of common daily prayer which includes some liturgical prayer, and a time of charismatic prayer and worship. They share meals and fellowship. They hold fast to ideals of simplicity and detachment from material things, and have all possessions held in common. They choose to live single so that they might be more available to the work of the mission God has given them.
There is great diversity in the mission of the various brothers in the Servants of the Word. A large part of their work is with University students through University Christian Outreach (UCO). My involvement with the brothers came about because of my participation in UCO. The brothers pass on their vision for living radically as disciples of Christ by inviting young men into their life of prayer and community. Some of the brothers serve local ecumenical covenant communities of families and singles they belong to. Many of the brothers have secular jobs which support the life and mission of the whole brotherhood.
Ecumenical Context of Life a Source of Growth
The most striking thing for me about all of this is the context in which the life of the brotherhood is lived. Each morning you can find Catholics (Roman and Eastern rite), Protestants (of many different traditions) and Orthodox brothers praying together. They serve side by side and evangelize together. Their common life is a witness to all who encounter it that the unity Christ calls us to is possible.
The summer after my junior year of college I took part in a formation program called a ‘summer household’ that is run by the Servants of the Word. Each summer they invite college aged men into their household so that they can experience the blessing of their prayer and common life. I recall one of the brothers in particular who took an interest in helping me grow that summer. He is in his fifties and has been serving the Lord faithfully for many years. He played a big part in the Lord’s work in my life that summer by encouraging me to press on through difficulty, by sharing his own experiences, and by helping me find a job which made my presence there possible. He is also a Baptist. His example is just one of many instances of blessing that I experienced from brothers of other traditions. As I saw the way the brothers lived and loved in spite of denominational separation I could not help but think, “This is the way Christ would have us live.” Our separation is a cause for sorrow, and prayer and fasting, but it is also an opportunity to express unconditional love. I have experienced that love in the Servants of the Word in a way I had never conceived of as being possible.
I am currently an affiliate of the Servants of the Word in Grand Rapids, Michigan, discerning if the Lord has called me to be a part of this brotherhood, or to some other expression of single life such as the Priesthood. The affiliate commitment is similar to the novitiate in other religious orders. As a recent college graduate, I’ve also been blessed to be able to serve with University Christian Outreach at my alma mater, Grand Valley. UCO is an ecumenical ministry whose aim is to present a common witness to Christ in spite of our denominational differences.
The genuinely ecumenical environment of UCO allows us to live a modern Christian tension well: we have a united vision and goal in Christ but we are also able to talk about our differences which, while being real and important, should not prevent us from praying and serving together.
I am often asked if I feel hindered in my growth as a Catholic by my participation in an ecumenical outreach. On the contrary, my growth as a Catholic has been spurred on in large part by my involvement with UCO and the Servants of the Word. Growing as a disciple of Christ has inevitably led me to greater faithfulness and commitment to his Church as well. Being a part of this ecumenical community has challenged me to grow in knowledge and love of the Lord and the Church and has allowed me to more effectively love everyone God puts in my path.
Kyle Kilpatrick is an affiliate of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan