Local observance of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity hosted in Echo Park.On a gray and misty Sunday afternoon, members from a variety of Christian denominations met at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul at St. Athanasius Episcopal Church in Echo Park for an ecumenical prayer service which signaled the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.The annual local event is sponsored by the Southern California Ecumenical Council in conjunction with events celebrated around the world. Pope Benedict presided at an ecumenical Vespers service on Jan. 25 at the Vatican.Here in Southern California, representatives from various churches — including Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Quaker, Disciples of Christ and more — gathered to sing, reflect on readings and hear thoughts on the theme of “What Does God Require of Us?” by Bishop Dean Nelson of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.Taking his cue from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Bishop Nelson expounded on the idea that “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”“How radical those words must have sounded back then!” he said. “All the theoretical, economic, political, sexual differences … are dissolved in the simplest of acts, washing with water, our baptism, in the name of the Triune God. It was radical then and it still is radical today.”Furthermore, Bishop Nelson invited listeners to consider the direction exposed by the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.“We have one baptism and one mission,” explained Bishop Nelson about how all denominations can work together on a variety of social issues from hunger, the environment, health care and immigration. “As much as we’d like to think we can tackle these problems by ourselves, it’s when we come together that we are stronger,” he said.The prayer service also included songs from the St. Athanasius Youth Choir and an offering to support the neighborhood food bank in Echo Park. In addition, the tenth annual Gene Boutilier Award for Distinguished Ecumenical Service was presented to Rev. Albert Cohen of the United Church of Christ. Cohen currently serves as the executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council, but will be retiring soon.Rev. Father Haroutioun Tachejian from the Armenian Orthodox Church blessed the bread and the water that were later distributed to all.Following the service, church leaders pondered how to bring the message from today’s prayer service to their congregations and wondered about the future of ecumenism in today’s climate.Admitting that often times, ecumenism has been overshadowed by intra-religious gatherings, Father Alexei Smith, director of the archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, emphasized that for Catholics, ecumenism is still a high priority. “Pope Benedict is marking this day as well,” said Father Smith. “And the pope continues with the idea of reuniting the fractured Body of Christ.”At the Vespers service, which was held at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Pope Benedict said that “there is a great need for reconciliation, dialogue, and mutual understanding” among Christians. “The scandal of division that undermines missionary activity was the impulse under which began the ecumenical movement that we know today,” the pope said. He added that a restoration of full union among Christians would be a powerful witness and a spur to evangelization. That unity is particularly important in our society today, he said, at a time when “it seems that the Christian message is less and less a presence in personal and community life.” For many, the pathway of reunification is still a long way off; tradition, history and heritage have marked the division of Christians for hundreds of decades. But Father Smith pointed out that the ecumenical movement is still “very new,” and said he embraces the notion of “Catholics working together with fellow Christians” in social justice issues.For Rev. Frank Alton, rector at St. Athanasius, the service at his church gave him a visual metaphor about the nature of Christianity. Referring to a prayer from the service, Rev. Alton said he “loved the image of Jesus’ seamless tunic, how it wasn’t the Roman soldiers who divided it, but rather it was his followers who tore it apart. I will take that powerful image to heart.”Catholic News Service contributed to this story.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0201/unity/{/gallery}