Divisions among Christians in Spokane are never more apparent than on Thanksgiving weekend.
Four “communitywide” services are scheduled for the Thanksgiving holiday - two today and two Sunday. Each is sponsored by a group of pastors or churches. None achieves the goal of representing the entire Christian community.
Bishop Walton Mize is trying to change that.
A former Catholic, an African American, an overseas missionary and a Pentecostal preacher, Mize has firsthand experience with each faction.
“In each group, there are some who just cannot imagine working with the others. They are convinced that the others just cannot recognize the truth,” he said. “But I don’t think God intended us to be so divided.”
Mize, 69, will be preaching today at the annual Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. That service is sponsored by the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries, which represents most of the city’s mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations.
To be at that service, Mize will miss the annual Community Thanksgiving Service sponsored by the Ministerial Fellowship Union, which represents most African American pastors and their churches.
Both services have been Thanksgiving Day traditions for more than 20 years.
On Sunday, the faithful have two more services to choose between. Catholic Charities is sponsoring a service to commemorate World AIDS Day. Just two hours later, the Greater Spokane Association of Evangelicals is sponsoring a service to celebrate marriage and family.
“You put all those services down on paper and that just sort of sums up a sad reality in this town,” said Patrick Copeland-Malone, outreach director at First Presbyterian Church. “In human terms, it doesn’t surprise me. In theological terms, I think we are just missing the boat.
“It’s like a spiritual tug of war, each pulling for God to be present at our event.”
Mize’s first encounter with religion was in 1939 when two nuns in full black habits appeared at his door, loaded with groceries. He was 11. His mother had died the year before. His father was recovering from a stroke. His older brother was an invalid, and his younger sister had been sent off to live with relatives.
“I thought they were angels,” he said. “They were just beautiful, standing there on the doorstep.”
The nuns invited him to join the choir and provided him with a religious education.
In his 20s, he watched his business partner change his life after becoming a born-again Christian. Inspired by that example, Mize started his own Bible study.
He worked under the instruction of a Pentecostal preacher and eventually had what is known today as a charismatic experience - a presence of the Holy Spirit visible by signs such as speaking in tongues and prophesying.
At the time, Pentecostal pastors taught that anyone who experienced the Holy Spirit should quit their old church and join a Pentecostal church. So Mize did just that.
“But I could not get over the fact that the first time I had seen the glory of God, I was still in my former church,” he said. “And God still appeared to me. So I couldn’t buy it, that we had to separate ourselves.”
Mize eventually went on to become a preacher. Based in San Francisco, he served in both Nigeria and Vietnam, starting churches and working his way up to bishop.
Between stints overseas, he returned to San Francisco and was surprised by widening divisions among Christians.
Some churches and denominations were uniting to fight social problems, claiming that was the mandate of the New Testament. More conservative churches were heading in the other direction, uniting to evangelize and preach the Gospel, Mize said.
“Now we are seeing that it really shouldn’t be either-or but both,” he said. “But back then we couldn’t see that.”
Frustrated in his attempts to get the two sides talking, Mize gave up - for a time. He was transferred to Spokane in 1989.
“I made myself a promise that this time I wasn’t going to back away,” he said. “No matter how things went, I was going to try and stay in there and get these factions to talk to each other.”
It’s been eight years, and he is just starting to make headway. In addition to caring for his own congregation, he participates in as many boards and prayer groups as he can.
By doing so, he offers his peers a glimpse of a person they might otherwise only know as a stereotype. He has found a kindred soul in Copeland-Malone, who also makes a point to attend as many different gatherings as possible.
The results uncovered some deep-seated prejudices, as well as some hopeful friendships.
There are some fundamentalists who believe some Catholics and mainline Protestants aren’t even Christians, Copeland-Malone said. And there are some Catholics and mainline Protestants who can’t stand the thought of talking to a fundamentalist.
Several ministers from each faction are meeting together monthly to talk about the divisions. Eventually, they hope to come up with a plan of action, but the going has been slow.
Still, Mize said he intends to remain true to his promise to work on uniting Christians in Spokane.
The first step, he said, is establishing individual relationships between members of the different groups, so they can develop trust.
“Everybody says they want to do this. I don’t think anybody really has a clue as to what the best way to proceed is,” he said. “Because we haven’t ever really gotten together to talk to each other.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Religious services The Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service is at 10 a.m. today, St. Aloysius Church, 330 E. Boone. The Community Thanksgiving Service is also at 10 a.m., Full Gospel Mission for All Nations, 1912 E. First. Catholic Charities is sponsoring an ecumenical service in conjunction with World AIDS Day, at 4 p.m. Sunday, Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, 1115 W. Riverside. The Greater Spokane Association of Evangelicals is sponsoring a “Thanksgiving Celebration of Marriage and Family” at 6 p.m. Sunday, Spokane Arena, 720 W. Mallon.