Interfaith service unites religions in Shenandoah

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SHENANDOAH — The Shenandoah sesquicentennial celebration went an additional day on Sunday with the holding of an interfaith ecumenical service in Girard Park.
The service was originally scheduled for Aug. 20, as part of “Faith and Family Day,” but due to the chance for rain, it was postponed. The date change did prevent some participants from attending.
The Rev. Melinda “Mindy” Heppe, pastor of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Shenandoah, conducted the service with the participation of members of different churches and groups in the borough. Before the service began, Heppe explained how the idea developed.
“In the early days of the planning they were talking about ‘Faith and Family Day’ and decided they needed to do something,” Heppe said. “So we had a few planning meetings and we went with the flow for the service. We were hurt by Mother Nature last week, and some people who could have been here then can’t be here now, but it looks like God is providing people and looks like we’ll have an interesting time and I’m delighted. We’ll be with some people from various churches adding some song to it. Nobody is preaching. That was a group decision that I thought was wonderful.”
The public sat around the park’s gazebo where the service was held. DJ Dan Helfer provided the sound equipment. Heppe and Shenandoah Sesquicentennial Committee member Eric Becker broadcast a live feed for Facebook to announce the service would begin.
Heppe welcomed everyone to the service and went over some of the songs and hymns before getting started.
“I think we’ll take a moment to pray in thanksgiving to God for those who walked this ground before we did, long before Europeans and others came here,” Heppe said. “We thank God for the things they had, for the beauty that they saw in creation and how they praised the creator.”
Heppe spoke of the past and what it would be like on a typical Sunday that began early in the morning with Matins (morning prayer), Sunday school, the main worship service, and in the evening was the praying of Vespers (evening prayer). During the week, there were other services and activities that kept people connected to their church, including choir practice and religious education for the children.
“It wasn’t just church. It was family,” Heppe said. “You were doing this with your family. That is something worth remembering and worth holding on to now.”
The first song was “How Great Thou Art,” with Carol Ann Marcinowski and Lauren Boorujy, both members of Restoration Fellowship, singing and playing guitar.
After the hymn, Heppe spoke again of the past and how things have changed.
“Times change, situations change. How many of you remember when a mixed marriage was a Pole marrying a Lithuanian?” Heppe asked, getting a laugh from the people. “It happened. People had to deal with things like how to do holy supper. They’re eating what? People worked it out, they developed new traditions, they developed new blends, and they have enriched us through the years.”
The next speaker was Lynn Sweet, who told her story of being raised in an interfaith family of Jewish and Catholic faiths and raised Jewish, though baptized Catholic and did attend Sunday school for a short time. She spoke of her visit to Israel in 2013, including her experiences in the Dead Sea area.
Later in the service, Sweet was joined by her father, Leonard Sweet, who spoke and joined his daughter in a traditional Jewish prayer read in Hebrew and English.
Heppe spoke about the many churches of Shenandoah and how so many are gone. She introduced Susan Swearhart of the Greater Shenandoah Area Historical Society, who spoke of the society’s plan to dedicate a section of its museum building to ethnic culture.
“As the churches are closing, we’re getting things from churches, such as the sign from the first St. Michael’s (Ukrainian Catholic Church that was demolished), and items from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church,” Swearhart said. “There are enough things there that we’re going to make cubicles and have it ready for next years. We are going to display the church in what we’ll call the ‘Ethnic Room.’ ”
Music was then provided by 12 members of Glory of Faith International Church, which is located in the former First Baptist Church. The members of the Korean American congregation provided a very moving song that had the people clapping. The pastor, the Rev. John Jang, followed with an equally moving prayer.
“Jesus, you are the lord of this town. You reign forever in this town. God bless Shenandoah. God bless Schuylkill County. God bless Pennsylvania. God bless America, alleluia, alleluia!” Jang shouted.
Michelle Day presented information about a possible saint from Shenandoah, Father Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., whose cause for canonization is being investigated in the Catholic Church. She spoke of his imprisonment in the Soviet Union, his return to America and his life heroically serving God.
Heppe led prayers of petition, with everyone participating. She listed the churches in the town as part of the petitionary prayers.
Divine Mercy Roman Catholic Church member John Sienkiewicz spoke of his former parish, St. George Church, which was a ethnic Lithuanian parish, and sang a favorite hymn, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” in Lithuanian and English.
A group of choir members from Divine Mercy Church also sang during the service, as did Shaina Graff.

Article Courtesy – BY JOHN E. USALIS –