In a small town, denominational lines can run deep. It is not unusual for a person from one denomination to rarely darken the door of another except for the occasional wedding or funeral.
But not in Alturas.
Never heard of it? Alturas is an unincorporated Polk County community in central Florida.
“We’re eight miles from Bartow, eight miles from Winter Haven and eight miles from Lake Wales,” said the Rev. Kathleen Durbin, pastor of Alturas United Methodist Church. “We’re a blip. You don’t drive by us; you have to come.”
Alturas has a population of about 4,000, enough to support an elementary school, a convenience store, a post office and three churches: Alturas Methodist, First Baptist and a non-denominational congregation called The Church.
Alturas has another distinction. It’s a hotbed of ecumenism.
The congregations routinely get together to do things, like the upcoming fall festival, which serves as a Halloween alternative. There are the Christmas cantata, the Easter sunrise service at the lake on the property of the Methodist church and the Fifth Sunday sings.
All the congregations support the food pantry at First Baptist. Everyone came together in 2015 to celebrate Alturas Methodist’s centennial.
Durbin, who arrived in Alturas in 2015, said she enjoys her friendships with Richard Counts, pastor of First Baptist, and Randy Santiago, pastor of The Church. They’ve dispensed with clerical titles, addressing each other as “brother” and “sister.”
“I’ve always been about relationships, not denominations,” she said. “We’ve always worked together. It’s kind of odd. I know pastors who won’t walk across the street to talk to each other. But it’s better this way.
Santiago considers cooperative events as a form of evangelism. The logo of his church is: “We are missionaries at work.”
“We love our community and want to aid it in whatever capacity we can,” Santiago said. “It’s a joy for us to have a community event. If the love of God is real in the houses of God, then you should always be able to get together for functions.”
Counts said he grew up in legalistic churches and believes there are too many factions in society. He thinks the cooperative events send a positive message to the community.
“When you stand before the Lord, he’s not going to ask you if you were Baptist or Methodist or Assembly of God,” Counts said. “It boils down to we are a family of believers, the family of God. We have to be honest about sin and things that are wrong, but we have to love people first.”
And Counts thinks that for some people, the community efforts have mitigated the stigma of going to a church for help.
“I’ve done more counseling than in the past,” Counts said. “My doors are open to anyone.”
The pastors get together quarterly for lunch, where they talk about upcoming events but also share the stresses that come with being pastors. It’s what Santiago calls “communing and consoling.”
“The pastor’s job can be very isolated,” Counts said. “We can’t talk to people in our congregation about some things, about what we’re going through or how we feel.”
“The lunches provide a time for fellowship and a chance to talk about things … so we are able to better serve our churches,” Counts said.
Santiago, who entered the ministry in 2005, finds the counsel of more experienced pastors invaluable.
“I’m young in the Lord, and they’re more seasoned,” he said. “I bounce a lot of things off them.”
Santiago said he thinks the cooperative efforts show that “you can share the love of the Lord in many ways. It’s not the building. It’s not the person at the podium. It’s the Lord. It’s a great blessing to support each other and not get crossed up by denominational things.”
As Durbin puts it, “We’re not trying to outdo each other. We’re loving people and teaching about Jesus.”
—Lilla Ross is a freelance writer in Jacksonville.