As I sit down to write this devotional, my heart is filled with joy and thanksgiving for the gift of community celebrated in La Crescent last weekend during Applefest.

A special thank-you to the Applefest Board members who made sure the 69th annual celebration would be a great success. I am also grateful that Alex Graaff’s article last week titled “Applefest stays true to its message,” included Shannon Stremcha’s description of what this community celebration means to her: “I love the unity that Applefest brings to members of the community. To me, it’s more than just a weekend of fun activities; it is a spirit of togetherness.” Hopefully, opportunities to meet new neighbors and to feel a sense of unity within the community is something for which we may all give thanks.

Every year our community and state are becoming more diverse, with neighbors who may not look like me or share my religious beliefs. For this I like to meditate on the words of a hymn written by Tom Colvin in 1963 when he was serving as a long-term missionary to Africa. Colvin’s prayerful song is simple: “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.” Drawing upon Jesus’s example of washing the feet of his friends (John 13:3-16) Colvin includes one verse that celebrates the diversity of our neighbors as being both rich and poor, varied in color and race, as well as being neighbors who are both near and far away.

As a pastor of a Lutheran congregation within the Christian faith, I encourage members to look for opportunities to grow in ecumenical relationships with their neighbors who belong to other Christian churches. For example, I rejoice that a new document titled “Declaration on the Way” now provides common ground for ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans. This document is intended to facilitate more conversation as Lutherans and Catholics seek to walk and serve together as followers of Jesus. I pray that Christians of all denominations will continue to establish ecumenical relationships for the sake of fostering Christian unity.

At the same time, it is also important to strengthen our community by building interfaith relationships with neighbors who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or neighbors who embrace Hmong or Ho-Chunk spirituality. Christians enter into interfaith dialogue so that we might be good neighbors. Today, interfaith dialogue is not an option, nor can it be dismissed as a sterile academic pursuit. It is vital to celebrating the gift of community. The challenge is being open to dialogue with others without watering down or compromising our own faith.

The spirit of togetherness in community is a gift to be celebrated. I invite you to join your neighbors from 6:30-9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, to discuss “Loving Our Interfaith Neighbors”at the La Crescent High School Media Center in a conversation facilitated by Cyndy Reichgelt.

The discussion will continue with an Interfaith Panel 6:30-9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct.10 at the Onalaska United Methodist Church, 212 Fourth Ave. N., Onalaska, Wisconsin. The interfaith panel with include presenters from Judaism, Isalm, Buddhism, Animism/Shamanism, Hinduism and Ho-Chunk spirituality.

The Rev. Kent D. Johnson is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, La Crescent.

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Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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