PHOENIX — From the time Father David Loeffler was born until he turned 12, his Pentecostal “granny” took him to her little church four times a week, along with her family members and other children under her care as a nanny.
And each visit was four hours long.
Loeffler, director of ecumenism and interreligious affairs for the Diocese of Phoenix, eagerly shared the story and photos of his “granny,” which he carries in his smartphone, during a reception following the Prayer Service for Christian Unity Jan. 23 at St. Pius X Catholic Church.
The annual interdenominational prayer service, sponsored by the Arizona Faith Network, is part of the global Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year, the prayers and reflections marking the Jan. 18-25 observance centered on hospitality shown by the islanders of Malta to St. Paul and those who were shipwrecked as described in Acts 28: “They showed us unusual kindness.”
In his homily, Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares of Phoenix shared his experiences with another ecumenical initiative: the John 17 Movement, of which the bishop is an associate, is an outreach to evangelicals and Pentecostals, as well as Catholics.
His work on unification has caught the eye of Pope Francis, who supports the “spiritual movement” and has invited the bishop and other local Arizona pastors to Rome to share their experience.
“The Holy Father has helped us to articulate the spirituality of this movement of unity by saying that we can have unity amidst diversity; just as a body has many parts that are different, yet, essential for the good of the whole, so also, the one body of Christ,” said Nevares.
He explained the pope also encourages breaking down the walls of “suspicion,” “criticism” and “judgments” and having a “relational reconciliation.”
The Rev. Rock Fremont, chair of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity planning team and pastor of Shepherd of the Hills United Church of Christ in Phoenix, called the evening “love embodied.”
“This is truly a glimpse of a moment toward wholeness,” Rev. Fremont said.
That love bore generosity into the collection baskets to support prison ministry in the Phoenix Diocese. Kevin Starrs, prison ministry director, along with coordinator Margaro Lira, briefly introduced their work, some of which is done at St. Pius X.
Starrs became emotional as he described how Lira grew up on the streets in South Phoenix “where he sat in this church and cried out.”
“There have been tears and joy but much suffering,” Starrs said, “and prison ministry survives off of unity. We serve all. It doesn’t matter what denomination they are.”
Bishop John S. Pazak, who heads the Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix, blessed an icon of an embracing Andrew and Peter, representing the fraternal love of the “East” and “West,” created by Brenda Fox.
The iconographer, who grew up an in evangelical church, said the Christian unity service was of particular importance “living in such a decisive world; a season of sides.”
“I teach all faiths and I feel like the Lord is using me as a bridge. I’m not there to convert, I am there to pray with the faith of other Christians,” she said.
“We may serve in different denominations, but we serve the same Lord,” the Rev. Reginald D. Walton, senior pastor of Phillips Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church who represented the denomination’s Ninth Episcopal District, told The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix.
“The body of Christ is one,” he said. “Tonight, we see the church as described in Acts 2: Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, evangelicals … coming together in one spirit for the call and cause of Christ.”
Recalling his Pentecostal “granny,” Loeffler, recalled to the Sun after the service that as a child he set up an altar at home and dressed his younger brother as an altar server, but when it was time for his “homily,” he “preached it like a Pentecostal.”
Although she died before she could see Loeffler ordained as a Catholic priest, the impact she had in his life remains palpable. “My granny taught me the Bible,” he said. “She lived the Bible.”
One of her favorite and most quoted verses was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
At his first assignment for the diocese, Loeffler walked into his office at St. Daniel the Prophet Parish in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he found a big desk, with its top covered by a large piece of glass to protect the wood underneath from damage.
As Loeffler surveyed his new surroundings, something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. There, under a corner of the glass, was the Philippians scripture reading.
Loeffler, who also is a member of the planning team, told the Sun he saw the service as a positive step toward a dialogue of understanding and dismantling “caricatures” we have created for each other based on ignorance.
“Our differences do matter, we have to have those difficult talks, but we can’t do that if we don’t have a relationship with one another,” Loeffler said. “It edifies me when Christians can come to know each other — to break down stereotypes — so we can actually get to know one another and pray … in a world longing for peace and stability.”
Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted also attended the ecumenical service along with a dozen other faith leaders from different Christian denominations.
Keating writes for The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix.
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