Inaugural non-denominational event seeks to give back to Buffalo community
by Joshua Maloni
The cheers coming from First Niagara Center Friday will be different than usual.
Those in attendance will be praising God, and not the blue and gold of the Buffalo Sabres.
The first community-wide "Good Friday Together" service will be held on the first night of Easter weekend. The free, non-denominational event begins at 7 p.m., and seeks to unite local churches and raise funds for the local community. Its format includes a time of worship, communion, a series of short speeches and reflections on Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
"Good Friday Together" has been several years in the making.
"There's four of us here in the region - Jerry Gillis at The Chapel; Roderick Hennings, who pastors Zion Dominion; Marty Macdonald, who pastors City Church in Batavia; and then me - we were all together three years ago on a trip in Israel, and we prayed together at the Western Wall," said Pastor Pat Jones of Eastern Hills Wesleyan. "(We) began to just pray how we could cooperate together in ways that would demonstrate to the community that actually the church is one church instead of a bunch of different churches; that we can work together."
Before embarking on a project to unify the Western New York church community, the pastors first found ways to unite their own congregations.
"The last couple years, we have exchanged pulpits and worship teams in each other's churches, and began cooperating together in that way," Jones said. "(We) started looking at how else can we pull the church in Western New York together. And out of times that we've had together ... the concept came up, 'What if we tried to pull together with as many churches as wanted to participate within the Western New York area doing a service together?' And we targeted Good Friday because a lot of churches do Good Friday services."
This past winter, the four pastors hosted a luncheon where about 120 other pastors attended, seeking information on "Good Friday Together," and offering to pitch in.
"And that's kind of how the ball all got rolling," Jones said.
The four pastors set their sights on hosting "Good Friday Together" at First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo.
"We targeted there just simply because of the dream of how many people we could pull together," Jones said. "The secondary point of this was not just to get a bunch of Christians together for a service but, rather, we also wanted to make a definite statement to the community about our desire to invest in the community.
"By having it at First Niagara Center, we knew it would be a place that the community of Buffalo could come to - be familiar with. But also, as a part of this night, there's going to be an offering taken. We have worked to cover all expenses upfront such that all the offering is going to be invested into the City of Buffalo through some various charities and ministries that will benefit - everything from education to health to transitional housing to mentoring and equipping kind of things for people, for jobs.
"It was meant to be held at a focal point where ... we could say to the community, 'We care about our community; we're not just here within the community; we tangibly care about what's going on in our community, and want to see our community move forward in a positive way.' "
Jones said the Sabres organization provided a key assist in making "Good Friday Together" a reality.
"We are very grateful," he said. "The one thing that we are extremely grateful about is that we didn't know what impact hockey starting back after the time off (would have, or how it) would affect this. And we are extremely grateful to the Sabres organization and their support, because they told the NHL that they would not host a game that night in their facility, because they wanted to support what the churches were doing."
This type of cooperative effort, Jones said, has also been seen in the local political sphere.
"I believe that maybe some of the local politicians see that the church, and some of the fabric underneath what's going on in our community, is a faith-based-oriented thing," he said. "I think they see the value of working cooperatively as opposed to antithetical in any way."
An additional selling point of "Good Friday Together" is that the event welcomes people of all races and faiths.
"One of the things that we're working hard at is recognizing the multiple ethnicities of our area," Jones said. "We know that probably one of the biggest ethnic groups will be Hispanic. So our worship songs, as the words go up on the screen, will also be dubbed in Spanish, as well. And we're working in having translations in sections for Hispanic congregations that maybe are not English speaking, and also Chinese congregations that are not English speakers, as well. And so there's going to be some sections marked off where they can go and have people doing live translation for them."
Once the event begins, "There's going to be communion that we're going to do together; there's going to be seven different speakers that will be doing the seven last words of Christ on the cross, in small segments - like five minutes each," Jones said. There will be prayer for international pastors in the area, and "We're going to recognize all the diversity that there is within the Buffalo and Western New York area."
Jones said organizers hope to see between 8,000 and 10,000 in attendance.
"We believe that's a real possibility," he said.
The Rev. Al Warner, who heads Set Free Inc. alongside his wife, Deb, said "Good Friday Together" promises to be "history-making."
"Debbie said it shifts atmosphere," he said. "What I would say is best summed up by one of the members of the Buffalo Common Council, the chief legislative body for the city. This is what he said, he said, 'Rev., if you pull this off, when I walk in that night and I look up into an arena filled with people of faith like myself, I'll be a stronger leader for God when I get back to City Hall, because I'll know how many people there are out there that are supporting and behind me."
Al Warner said "Good Friday Together" is a chance for people to meet and form connections.
"If you go back in scripture, Elijah thought he was the only one left. And God had to remind him there were 7,000," he said. "I think, many times, what happens is those who lead and people of personal faith often feel like they're the only ones left, and that there's nobody like them around Buffalo and Western New York. And I believe this event will ignite a sense that we're connected; we're better together; and there's more of us than we've ever imagined that are following God out together on the journey."
"We're really excited," Deb Warner said, adding, "When President Clinton came in 1999, we were given tickets as intercessors to pray over the event. And so we're sitting there, and I took all kinds of pictures. And I said to Al, 'Someday, this arena is going to be filled with Christians.' And I've always believed that, and I've always hung on to that."
For the Warners, "Good Friday Together" is "a culmination of so many prayers and so many desires. ... I can't wait to see the place be full," she said.
"And we do believe that the city will never be the same again," he added. "When these kind of things happen, they're like God smiling from Heaven on the unity of his church. And we're told in both the Old and New Testaments that, when the church does come together, that the city that it serves will never be the same again."
For more information on "Good Friday Together," visit www.goodfridaytogether.com.