Jewish, Christian congregations share space at St. Mark’s Lutheran
CHINA GROVE — The music is loud and joyous. There is clapping, dancing, singing. Shouts of “Praise the Lord!” and “Amen!” echo more than once throughout the gathering space.
But it’s Saturday morning, not Sunday morning, and the congregation is Jewish, not Christian.
Beit Shofarot Messianic Synagogue meets each week in the fellowship hall of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in downtown China Grove.
It seems an unusual partnership, but an association that’s worked well for the two congregations.
Beit Shofarot is Messianic, which means its members believe in Jesus. The congregation has Jewish and non-Jewish members, who come from myriad religious traditions: Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Catholic.
Pastor Bill Connelly of Lutheran Chapel, the mother church of St. Mark’s, initially visited the Jewish congregation when it was meeting at CFA 29 North. Both congregations were growing, and a conflict with space developed.
Connelly got Messianic Rabbi Yossi Wentz involved with the South Rowan Ministerial Association. Wentz now serves as its president. Wentz also met Pastor Keith Copeland, St. Mark’s interim pastor.
“Pastor Keith suggested we have a conversation about coming to St. Mark’s,” Wentz says.
Copeland adds, “Yossi had prayed that God would open up some place.”
The St. Mark’s congregation was receptive to the idea, and Beit Shofarot has been meeting in the fellowship hall for nearly a year.
There have adjustments for both congregations. Beit Shofarot’s colorful banners ring the fellowship hall’s walls.
During December, the Jewish congregation worshipped in the sanctuary as the fellowship hall was used for an event for Main Street Mission.
The Chrismon tree was up — not part of the Jewish tradition. No problem. Copeland devised a screen to cover it.
Attending worship at Beit Shofarot is an all-day event. Breakfast begins at 9:15 a.m., followed by the service at 10:30 a.m. There’s an afternoon oneg or meal, followed by Jewish educational classes.
In its fourth year of existence, the congregation has between 30 and 60 worshippers each week.
When congregations form, they meet in members’ homes for a time of prayer and study. Once a group grows to 12, Wentz says, a congregation forms.
Beit Shofarot pays for the use of the fellowship hall through a yearly contract. Wentz has talked to the members of St. Mark’s about the different symbols used in the Jewish faith, and the common heritage the two congregations share.
Wentz is originally from Concord, and has lived all over the country.
“As a Messianic, I knew this area was the belt buckle of the Bible belt,” he says. “To come to a small community and do this was beyond my imagination.”
The congregation has reached out to the community by volunteering at Main Street Mission and hosting a community Seder meal.
When members of the ministerial association went caroling at Christmastime, the Beit Shofarot congregation provided refreshments afterward.
“There are a lot of things happening here that have never happened before,” Connelly says. “It’s good.”
Connelly participated in the Beit Shofarot worship service on Jan. 4, during which a Torah mantle was dedicated in memory of Roy Lee Watts.
Watts was a lifelong Gideon and non-Jewish member of the congregation. He served as a shomer, which is an usher or temple guard.
Alannah Kamili of Kannapolis serves as the congregation’s administrative assistant and Web designer. She’s been a member of the congregation since it started.
“I am genetically Jewish, but was raised in the Baptist faith,” she says. “I was looking for a congregation that was Messianic. I found the perfect congregation. I walked in and it was home.”
Julia Shelton of Landis is a Jewish member of the congregation and joined three years ago with her husband.
“We’ve been Messianic for 30 years but attended a Christian church,” she says. “We met the rabbi at a community Thanksgiving service. We were thrilled. We’ve been coming ever since.”
Jamie Johnson of Davidson serves as lead cantor, leading prayers and songs during services. She moved to Davidson for her job with Davidson College. A friend had visited Beit Shofarot.
They visited the week after they moved three years ago and have been involved with the congregation since.
Susan Sloop was raised Lutheran but has been a part of the congregation for about a year and a half. She was looking for something different, and met Wentz at a Bible study at First Reformed Church in Landis.
“It is so real, it is so true and it is so basic,” she says. “We worship in the synagogue, just as Jesus did. I can worship however I choose.”
With many members from Baptist and Pentecostal backgrounds, the worship services are lively.
Two men blow long Yemenite horns or shofars, calling the congregation to worship.
Beit Shofarot means “house of trumpets.” Guitarist Wayne Triplett leads the singing — and there’s a lot of it. Scripture readings alternate with songs and prayers. This readings this day are from Exodus, Jeremiah and Mark.
As the new mantle or cover for the Torah is dedicated, Wentz carries it through the congregation in the parading of the Torah.
Congregants touch the Torah, then touch their fingers to their lips. It is a way to draw close to God, Johnson explains. Some members follow Wentz around the fellowship hall as the music plays.
In response to the display, the congregation sings, “Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous of the Lord.
The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things for us. The Lord’s right hand reigns on high.”
For more information on Beit Shofarot, visit beitshofarot.org.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.