On Sept. 15, 1985, representatives from eight Christian churches in Riverside and North Riverside ratified a unique agreement to form a covenant, meant to unite the eight congregations and help them learn more about each other while working toward common goals.
Last week, the Riverside/North Riverside Covenant of Churches quietly recognized its 20th anniversary by updating and reaffirming those original goals?”quite simply, to encourage acceptance and understanding among the different Christian faiths, and to work together as much as possible to promote the common good.
“It’s sort of an ideal,” said Anne Little, a representative of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the covenant’s governing council. “All Christian denominations will never completely agree on everything, but when we work together in the love of God and of man, we can achieve great things.”
After two decades, the covenant members remain the same: in North Riverside, Mater Christi Roman Catholic Church and North Riverside Community Presbyterian Church; in Riverside, Ascension Lutheran Church, St. Mary Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Riverside Presbyterian Church, Sts. Peter and Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, and United Methodist Church of Riverside.
Over the years the covenant’s council has organized numerous events, ranging from ecumenical services and pulpit exchanges to lecture series and charitable walks.
Marjorie Lewe, a founding member of the council, said some of her fondest memories of the covenant are from ecumenical services that brought all of the congregations together, particularly Easter sunrise services that used to be held on the banks of the Des Plaines River. She also recalled services where clergy would give sermons at different member churches.
“Having other denominations at other pulpits used to be a no-no,” she said. “It was wonderful to bring all the churches together.”
Bringing the different denominations together for worship was also praised by other longtime council members. Bernie Nawara, who is also a founding member and a representative of St. Mary Catholic Church, said such joint services changed her perception of other Christian churches.
“It just gave me the feeling that we’re all working toward one main goal, which is unity in Jesus’ name,” she said. “We’re coming from different angles and points of view, but we still have the same core.”
In addition to sharing their religious beliefs, covenant members also provided more secular activities for their congregations. Years ago, Lewe said, mini-courses on various subjects would be given by laypeople in every member church.
The council would also organize lecture series dealing with current events in religion. For example, Little said, after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the covenant held a lecture series on Islam.
The most long-lasting events, however, have been those related to charity. Every year the covenant sponsors a blood drive and a fall CROP walk. The latter event raises money for the Church World Service, a non-profit organization that fights hunger in developing countries.
While these charity projects are still popular, however, participation in the covenant overall has declined.
Council member Barbara Hone, a representative of Ascension Lutheran Church, said there are fewer pulpit exchanges and ecumenical services than in the past. Recently, the only event the covenant has organized outside the blood drive and CROP walk has been a yearly summer Bible school.
Hone and other council members attributed this decline to new clergy members coming into almost every member church. Because organizations such as the covenant are fairly rare, Hone said, new clergy members haven’t always understood the importance of it.
“There have been a lot of changes,” Hone said. “Some clergy didn’t always understand the importance of the covenant. But the people involved have just not wanted to let it die.”
That wish to maintain the covenant despite the declining interest in it is why the council chose to recognize this year’s anniversary by reaffirming the organization’s goals. Lewe said that a major part of the reaffirmation was recognizing that laypeople could play a much larger role in the covenant than they had in the past, replacing the more absent clergy members.
“We discussed that we laypeople could continue with the covenant just as well as the clergy,” she said.
Re-energizing the covenant will be a challenge for the council, particularly because this year’s anniversary also brings with it the retirement of their long-time president, Sister Margaret Sassanardo of St. Mary Catholic Church. Sassanardo has led the council for 10 years, and most council members credit her with keeping it alive for the past few years.
“She’s been so active and dedicated over so many years, when no one else was willing to chair the council,” Hone said.
Although the council has yet to decide who will replace Sassanardo, many members said they felt up the challenge of rekindling interest in the covenant in the various congregations, hopefully in time to have a larger celebration for their 25th anniversary.
“I hope the reaffirmation of the goals will be invigorating,” Lewe said. “Once people understand and we get them excited about it, then they’ll want to be a part of it again.”