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Meet Rev. Jeffrey Utter, Chair of Joint Ecumenical and Interfaith Committee

 written by Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editor

“How can someone be as great as Mahatma Gandhi and not be a Christian?”

As a teen, Jeff Utter watched his pastor struggle with this question and with God’s clear response to his prayer for enlightenment – another question, “Do you not think that I can use this child of mine?”

Looking back, Jeff, now Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Utter, Interim Pastor of First Christian Church, Garden Grove, CA, recognizes the “nudge” that started him on a new faith journey and instilled in him a passion for ecumenism and interfaith cooperation.

Ordained as a United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor, he was called to serve as interim minister at a Disciples of Christ (DOC) church in 1989 – another milestone – and later became involved with a Disciples regional committee whose purpose was to hold up the goal of church unity to Disciples and encourage them to flesh out that goal by what they do and believe and by getting to know one another and serving together.   

This led, in turn, to involvement in other groups – as President of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, for example, an organization which, in addition to providing a variety of social services,  has long sponsored interfaith panels in which people from various religious traditions (from Buddhists and Jews to Wiccans and Scientologists) discuss issues from the perspective of those traditions.

Now Chair of the joint Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (Pacific South West Region, DOC and Southern California Nevada Conference, UCC), Jeff continues to explore ways to further these goals.  One special program he initiated was a workshop at last year’s DOC Annual Assembly.   Father Alexei Smith, a Roman Catholic priest was the “Ecumenical Guest;” Swami Sarvadevananda, representing the Hindu tradition, the “Interfaith Guest.”  The success of their discussions and participation – “an exciting opportunity to face up to our differences and find out how to learn from them” – led Jeff to propose making an annual event of it – and inviting UCC to make it a joint program, a celebration of their motto, “That they may all be one” (John 17:21).  Having spiritually impressive people from other religious communities in our midst helps us not only to face up to our deep differences on some issues, but also to learn from one another in unexpected ways.

Following through, Jeff brought a more detailed proposal to the Southern California Nevada (SCNC) Conference Board of Directors meeting on January 23, 2011, suggesting types of work to be shared and that the UCC Annual Gathering similarly invite such guests.  Again, his proposal was enthusiastically received.   He, in turn, was invited to share his passion with the readers of SCNC’s e-magazine, Connecting Voices.*

Asked how the Committee “works with” the commonalities and differences among the world’s religions, Jeff spoke of ways to educate individuals, congregations and conferences, citing as an example a DOC Annual Assembly workshop on the Sacrament of Communion, another successful program he hopes to see repeated at the Annual Gathering.  It addressed from the ecumenical perspective such long-debated topics as:

  • What is communion?
  • How is Christ present in the communion?
  • How often should it be served?
  • Who can preside?
  • Who can come to the table?

Swami Sarvadevananda, the Interfaith Guest, spoke of how Hindus, who do not practice communion, understand the presence of God in their religious services.

Another example he offers is his experience with a teacher of Zen Buddhism who taught him the discipline of Zen Sitting (a way to hold the body) and breathing techniques important in spiritual life.  These gifts from Eastern religions, along with meditation, could, he believes, enrich those of every faith and are for him an essential part of drawing closer to God.

Jeff’s church, too, provides valuable opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith interactions.   Four other churches (Presbyterian, Assembly of God – a Gypsy congregation – and two independent Spanish groups) share First Christian’s sanctuary.  Christmas Eve brings all together for a joint worship service conducted in five different languages.  It is, he reports, a powerful witness to the unity of God’s people.

Because we don’t all see God in the same way, Jeff doesn’t expect religions to unify, to become a single body.   But, he adds, we can draw ever closer, learning from one another, supporting one another, enriching one another, connecting as family.  To do so, he says, we need to practice real courtesy in the sense of being truly glad, not merely polite, when those of other faiths come together with us – even when we cannot agree with their beliefs.  The future of the human race on planet earth, he declares, depends on that gladness.

Asked what he “gets” or “gets back” from his involvement in ecumenical and interfaith programs, Jeff said “getting closer to God.  I want to be with those who take faith seriously, who see and feel God’s presence every day.

 Pretty great return on his investment of time!

________

*Watch Connecting Voices for articles from Jeff Utter and others from the Joint Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee! 

Read the latest news from the committee here

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