Passover begins this year at sundown on Friday, April 22. Members of the Secular Jewish Community will hold their Seder at 5:30 p.m. on April 23. Nothing unusual about that, since the group’s members identify as Jewish in a cultural sense.

Unity Temple will hold a Seder the night before, on April 22. Nothing unusual about that, since the Unitarian Universalist congregation borrows meaningful practices from many of the world’s religious traditions.

What is unusual is that both will be held at United Lutheran Church at the corner of Ridgeland and Greenfield in Oak Park.

The members of United Lutheran are orthodox, Trinitarian Christians. “Our worship services at United Lutheran Church are unapologetically Christian,” said the Rev. Dennis Bushkovsky. “We use the Old and New Testament scriptures each week as we also gather around Christ’s table for Holy Communion. We are also a part of a tradition that has developed particular worship styles and that has a specifically Christian theology. We are not all things to all people, even though we invite everyone to experience what Jesus Christ has to offer them through our congregation.”

On the other hand, the Secular Jewish Community resists references to any transcendent being. “I am culturally Jewish,” explained Elisa Lapine, the community’s leader. “I am not religiously Jewish in any way. I have traditions that I follow. One of the things I wanted for my kids to not have to do are these internal acrobatics that include saying things in Hebrew that are really prayers to a deity, yet in English I say I don’t really believe in any of that.”

At the same time, the Jewish tradition embodies values that resonate in her secular soul and are part of her identity. She shares the Seder food in part “to remember that our escape from the bitterness of slavery was won through hard struggle. This memory allows us to identify with the millions of people today who are struggling under oppression, poverty, and slavery. Their struggle is our struggle. And these issues are contemporary issues.”

Unity Temple’s “doctrine” is harder to articulate. Alan Taylor, the congregation’s senior pastor, acknowledged that when he arrived 12 years ago, some of the members were anti-Christian and others weren’t sure about the whole idea of God, so worshiping at United Lutheran (their interim location during construction) is a sign of growth. Partly because some members are uncomfortable with the word “God,” Taylor begins his prayers with words that resist identifying with any one particular faith tradition: “Oh Spirit of Life, Source of all Love, Eternal Mystery of God within, among and beyond us …”

What makes this unusual three-part relationship work so far is not an agreement on doctrine but in mutual need and respect for those who are different. “Our branch of American Lutheranism — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — is committed to ecumenical partnerships and to interfaith dialogue and shared action when possible,” explained Bushkovsky. “We do not believe that we need to be in complete agreement about all aspects of our faith in order to have meaningful and supportive relationships with others. Both congregations [i.e. United Lutheran and Unity Temple] support the Oak Park-River Forest Community of Congregations.”

Respecting all religious traditions is at the core of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. “Interfaith” in many ways is who they are.

Some faith communities might envy Unity Temple’s ability to worship in a landmark Frank Lloyd Wright building, but no one is jealous of the cost of maintaining the architectural treasure. After a chunk of the ceiling fell down into the sanctuary, an analysis of the structural stability of the building was done and the cost of doing the repairs necessary to restore it came in at $22 million, a staggering amount.

A grant from the Alphawood Foundation allowed the construction/restoration to begin last summer, but the faith community needed a temporary home. Bushkovsky knew Taylor from his involvement in an OP-RF clergy group and the Community of Congregations. When he heard of Unity Temple’s need, he offered his congregation’s building to the Unitarians to use for Sunday worship and religious education. It was a win/win arrangement. The Unitarians needed a home and being a small congregation with a large building to maintain, United Lutheran has appreciated the additional income.

Bushkovsky said the arrangement isn’t primarily a money maker. Rather, it is living out one of his faith community’s core beliefs. “As long as God has provided us with a building that can house many things, sometimes all at the same time,” he explained, “we wish to be stewards of this treasure for nearly anyone who can make good use of it.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...