Madeline Tallman, special to WTOP
WASHINGTON - The political opinions held by congregants at Burke United Methodist Church in northern Virginia vary widely, so when the church's Rev. Larry Buxton decided to hold an Election Day service, some folks were circumspect.
But Buxton's plan isn't to endorse a candidate or impress upon others any particular point-of-view. On the contrary. Buxton's plan is to remind people about what brings them together -- their belief in God -- on the day that divides them most deeply.
"We're doing what we're called to do," Buxton says.
It turns out, Buxton's not alone. Nationwide, pastors from practically all Christian denominations are joining a movement to unite their politically divided congregants in an Election Day communion.
The spark for the movement began in 2008 at a Mennonite Church in southwest Virginia. The Rev. Mark Schloneger held a fairly typical communion service, singing hymns about allegiance. Then, Schloneger asked his congregation to meditate on the difference between their vote as Americans and their vote as Christians. While their vote for the president was private, their vote as Christians was public and came before a loyalty to a political party.
"It just felt that there was a need for people to come together around the table, both as an expression of our unity in Christ but also an expression of where our hope lies," Schloneger, who is now a pastor in Indiana, says.
After positive reception, Shloneger worked with friend and fellow Mennonite pastor, the Rev. Kevin Gasser of Staunton Va., and colleague Ben Irwin to share this idea around the country.
Many Christians are uncomfortable with the amount of politics from both ends of the spectrum in churches, and people want change, says Irwin.
"For a lot of people that we hear from, it's like 'Yes, finally somebody is doing something about this,'" Irwin says.
Together, the three men began ElectionDayCommunion.org, which works to spread the message of putting unity in Christ above the divisive nature of political loyalties.
For the project, an invitation was sent to churches and congregations around the U.S. to come together and receive communion on Election Day. More than 500 churches in 47 states have registered with the site to say simply that they will hold a service on Nov. 6.
Both Schloneger and Buxton said people have approached them, both members and non-members of their congregations, with reservations about such a service, citing discomfort with political activity in the church. But the two said they made substantial effort in their congregations to explain that it was, and is, a nonpartisan event.
Mennonites in the past have abstained from voting because of their intensely pacifistic views. Voting for a president is voting for a commander-in-chief, which goes against their universal stance on nonviolence. Today however, many Mennonites have changed that tradition and participate in civil activity.
At the project's launch earlier this election season, Schloneger, Irwin, and Gasser had no expectations about how many churches would respond to the invitation. But through word of mouth and social media, the group thinks they are set to gain participants in all 50 states by Election Day.
Both Irwin and Schloneger believe it has been a very humbling experience.
"Politics is all about who is in power," Irwin says. "The communion meal represents the sacrifice of Christ, which is the exact opposite - that is the letting go of power, becoming the servant."
In order to stay truly nonpartisan, churches like Ashton United Methodist Church in Ashton, Md., will say prayers on Election Day, not for specific people, but for all those involved in the election. The Rev. Jenny Cannon of Ashton United Methodist says she will be very intentional with her wording, making sure to hold prayers of togetherness and unity and not for a specific outcome in the election.
Cannon will lead a midday service with Good Hope Union United Methodist Church and Emanuel United Methodist Church.
"I think there's something really powerful about doing it before the results come in," Cannon says. "Ultimately that's not the point, who wins or loses."
Follow WTOP on Twitter.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)
A new gadget will let you know how active your dog is. (Video)
A 19-year-old decides to catch a ride on a whale shark. (Video)
Katy Perry talks about Russell Brand and says she loves John Mayer.
Winners and losers at the Daytime Emmys. (Photos)