Unifier of Christians lauded as he retires

Rev. Don Green spent 12 years in the position

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The Rev. Don Green’s colleagues sometimes tease him about the photo in which he, a Lutheran minister, appeared to kneel before Pope John Paul II in a 2004 audience.

But this spiritual descendant of Martin Luther wasn’t going to let appearances get in the way of his passion for bridging differences between Christian groups, and he was crouching down for a reason. John Paul by then had a pronounced hunch due to Parkinson’s disease, and “if I wanted to look him in the eye, I had to get down,” Rev. Green said.

He told the pope “it was my prayer that we could share in the Lord’s Supper on the way to unity and not as the end of the journey. He smiled with acknowledgement that he understood what I said.”

A decade later, the chance of fulfilling that goal still seems remote. But Rev. Green and his colleagues held a service reflecting that aspiration on Saturday afternoon, as they marked his retirement after 12 years as executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s most robust local ecumenical groups.

The service, at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ross, generally followed the rubrics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to which Rev. Green belongs, and other Protestant liturgies. Given the state of denominational relations, that meant that while most Protestants went forward for communion, Catholic and Orthodox leaders didn’t. But Roman Catholic Bishop David Zubik did preach, and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Savis led in the recitation of an ancient creed.

“Sometimes we are witnesses to events we can’t participate in, but our presence gives hope and encouragement to sustain our efforts,” Rev. Green said.

Christian Associates, founded in 1970, brings together leaders of 26 local bodies — dioceses, synods, presbyteries and others — representing 16 denominations in 10 counties. Leaders meet in regular dialogues, issue periodic joint statements and cooperate in such ventures as jail ministry and disaster relief.

With a simple confession of faith — “Jesus Christ as divine savior and Lord” — it draws in active participation by Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic members. And even though Pittsburgh experienced two recent denominational splits — into Episcopal and Anglican groups as well as two Lutheran bodies — all four remain active with Christian Associates.

“While we could have polarized, with folks supporting one group or another, we had a higher sense of calling at the council table because of the trust and personal relationships,” Rev. Green said.

His colleagues say Rev. Green has strengthened those ties.

“He has embodied the desire we have for all of the Christian communities in southwest Pennsylvania to be in positive relationships with each other,” said Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “He has been present, respectful, affirming, willing to engage each of the Christian traditions.

The Rev. Sheldon Sorge, a Presbyterian who chairs the Christian Associates’ executive committee, said he credits Rev. Green with helping keep the organization strong at a time when many local ecumenical groups around the country have shrunk or folded.

“But the thing for which he is most dearly known is as pastor for the region,” Rev. Sorge said.

Rev. Green said his motive is simple — to work to fulfill “God’s desire for reconciliation among the whole human family.”

And that work extends beyond churches, as Rev. Green is a regular participant in interfaith dialogues and other work with Jews and Muslims. During the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009, the three faiths held a joint prayer service at St. Paul Cathedral.

A native of York, Pa., Rev. Green earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, was pastor at congregations in Hershey and Lancaster and was dean of Lutherans’ Lancaster Conference in the Lower Susquehanna Synod. His bishop recommended him to Bishop Donald McCoid in the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, and Rev. Green moved across the state to become his assistant in 1992.

When the Christian Associates position opened in 2002, he was named to that role.

Among the highlights of his tenure, Rev. Green said, was the Rome visit in 2004, when he accompanied the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as it performed for Pope John Paul II.

He also cites dialogues he helped to foster between local Jews and Protestants over tensions involving some denominations’ advocacy for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Rev. Green said the organization got involved in disaster relief following the damage resulting from Hurricane Ivan, and it later worked with civic leaders to prepare for the potential threat of an avian flu.

He was also pleased to see an expansion of the jail ministry involving chaplains and numerous volunteers, who not only visit prisoners but help mentor them as they prepare for life outside the walls. “Our staff and volunteers have dramatically helped to reduce recidivism,” he said.

Rev. Green plans to remain in Pittsburgh. He continues to serve on church boards and expects they will keep him busy.

Rev. Green is being succeeded by the Rev. Liddy Barlow, who was appointed in early March.

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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