April 28, five people of different ages, beliefs, and backgrounds, sat around the table at Stonewall Coffee in downtown Clarksburg, drinking coffee and debating apologetics, theology, and church doctrine like they’ve done weekly when possible for the last two and a half years. Several regular members of the group were missing that day and according to Desi Underwood, assistant director of the Clarksburg Mission, any given Friday varies in attendance depending on members’ schedules, and some members come and go.
The group is unique because each one at the table has a different story about their experiences in a church and they come from different denominations and churches in the area. One woman who attended for the first time, said that she had been raised in a church of extreme fundamentalism, but she said she no longer knows which denomination she belongs to and is currently seeking. John Paul Nardelli is Catholic, Michael Burge is pastor of the United Methodist Church in Stealey and will soon be moving to Shinnston with his family. Underwood said she wasn’t raised with a religious background.
“I was raised by atheist parents,” Underwood said. “Churches were cults and the Catholic Church was Satan himself. I was raised in a Catholic neighborhood, which didn’t help with what my parents were teaching, because the Catholic kids would tease me and say I was going to hell because I wasn’t baptized. So that just solidified what my parents were teaching me.”
According to Live Science, there are more than 200 church denominations in the United States and over 45,000 globally. The variety of beliefs of doctrine, theology, and each’s emphasis on certain ideals, often cause church splits and division, like the example of Southern Baptists who split from the Baptists in 1845. American theologian, John Piper, said on the website “Desiring God,” that the “church is fractured.” “Over the past couple years, we have experienced a lot of division among Christians at the levels of networks and denominations, but also inside local churches and among friends, too,” he said.
Even before everyone had arrived at Stonewall that dreary morning and the clock had struck 11 a.m., the official meeting time, the debate had begun about the taking of communion. Underwood said that the “passionate discussion” had been going on the last couple Fridays they were able to meet.
Underwood became a Christian eight years ago, and said she met Nardelli who is on the board at the Clarksburg Mission and learned that he was Catholic. She said she had some burning questions for him that she’d always wondered about his faith.
They eventually started meeting at Stonewall to discuss faith and religion. “And people just started coming and that was two and a half years ago. So it has just grown,” Underwood said. “I have learned that there is so much I assumed and didn’t know. It gets heated, but I think that everyone has bonded. You need to be challenged. You need to be questioned.”
Underwood said that, where once she was criticizing the Catholics, now she finds herself defending them. She said that coming together has been about unity and learning, and at the end of the day, they’re still friends and there for each other.
The topics for that Friday’s meeting bounced back and forth as people threw out questions or playful barbs about another’s beliefs. They pondered if the Earth was created in seven literal 24 hour days and then quickly switched to discuss different styles of worship and what is true worship and what is just unnecessary extravagance in the contemporary church services. “I’m just going to throw all of America under the bus,” Courtney Compton Bradley said. “We have a problem with being still. We cannot be still. It’s grind all the time, wake up and work 60 hours a week, wake up at 5 a.m and go, go, go. And then we go to church and we want smoke and we want lights. We want to be emotionally elevated.”
“And we want it to be done in 45 minutes,” Burge, current Stealey United Methodist pastor, said.
“I think there is more power in being still,” Compton Bradley added.
The conversations were at times blunt as they asked the others’ beliefs or challenged what they meant when they weren’t clear. But in the end, regardless of topics brought to the table, unity remained in one thing. “We come together as believers of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior,” Nardelli said. “That’s great common ground.”
“People think there’s so much division, and there is,” Underwood. “There are things that are different, but there really is more unity than division. And if people could just see that.”