Written By: Lynn Ingram | Photographed By: Brendan Easlick
It’s a story about celebrating what we have in common rather than focusing on our differences,and it’s a story about how making that choice can leave a legacy of love.
First, a little downtown Wilmington history lesson: Situated on the corner of Market and Fourth Streets is the historic Temple of Israel. Built in the Moorish Revival architectural style, this lovely stucco house of prayer is North Carolina’s first synagogue; construction began in 1875 and was completed the following year. Just a block away, on the corner of Market and Third Streets, stands St. James Episcopal Church, also of elegant stucco construction. The present building was erected in 1839, replacing the original church, which was built in 1751. St. James lays a long claim to history here. The Parish of St. James was established in 1729, a full ten years before the founding of the town of Wilmington.
One peaceful day in 1941, the Reverend Mortimer Glover (the rector of St. James) was hard at work in his parish house office. Alfred Walker, the church sexton, stepped into the office to tell the rector about a puzzling event occurring at the sanctuary.
“Mr. Glover,” said Mr. Walker, “there’s a man painting a sign on the front of the church.”
“Well, that can’t be,” said the Reverend Glover. “I must go over and see what it is.”
The two men walked over to the sanctuary, where, sure enough, a man stood on a ladder in the vestibule. The painter
was lettering, in gold leaf, this verse from Psalms 118:26: “Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord.” The Reverend Glover noted that the painter was doing fine work and told him to carry on, despite the fact that he had no idea who had hired the painter.
To get to the bottom of things, the rector telephoned the church’s senior warden, Mr. Grainger, to ask, “Did you give any orders to put an inscription over the door?” Mr. Grainger replied that he had not. The rector next telephoned the junior warden, who also had no knowledge of the painting. The rector continued telephoning every single one of the vestrymen, only to find that no one knew anything about the painter.
The mystery’s solution appeared a day or so later, when the rector received a telephone call from his very good friend, Rabbi Mordecai Thurman of the Temple of Israel. According to Beverly Tetterton, the unofficial historian for the Temple of Israel, the rabbi had contracted to have the Psalms verse painted over the door into the Temple’s sanctuary. Rabbi Thurman had received a bill for the painting, although no painting had actually been done at the Temple. After a bit of pondering, Rabbi Thurman was pretty sure he knew what had gone wrong, so he called his counterpart at St. James.
“Mort, this is Mordecai,” said the rabbi. “Was there a man up there putting an inscription over the door of the church?”
“Why, yes, there certainly was,” said the rector to the rabbi.
“Well, I just heard about it,” the rabbi replied, “ and I’m terribly ashamed and embarrassed, but he was supposed to come and put it over the synagogue.” The rabbi went on to say that he’d either have someone come and cover over the painting, or that he’d pay for such work if the rector wished to hire his own workman.
The rector stopped the rabbi and said, “Wait a minute, Mordecai. Do you realize that sign is just as appropriate over my church as it is over yours?”
The two men conversed for a few minutes more. The rabbi wanted assurance that his friend really did consider the verse appropriate, and furthermore, that he really wanted the verse to remain over the Episcopal church’s door. The rector put the rabbi’s mind at ease. Furthermore, the rector said, he’d like to pay the painter for the work, if the rabbi would kindly send the painter to his office.
Finally, the Reverend Glover accepted the offer, and so the Jewish synagogue gave the Episcopal church the gift of a gold leaf verse painted over the door of its vestibule.
Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Thurman called up the painter, perhaps providing more specific instructions as to the location of the synagogue. Soon, the painter completed a second painting of the Psalms verse in gold leaf, this time over the door for which it was originally intended.
That is how the Temple of Israel, the house of worship for a Jewish congregation, and St. James Episcopal Church, the house of worship for a Christian congregation, came to have the same verse painted over their doors.
Given differences in Jewish and Christian theology, how is it that the verse is appropriately at home over the door of both houses of worship? The verse, one of many that refer to the prophecy of a Messiah, appears in in the Book of Psalms, Chapter 118, Verse 26. The Psalms are included in the holy texts of both faiths, referred to as the Old Testament by Christians and as the Written Torah by Jews. While some faith communities in both Christianity and Judaism have various beliefs, a longstanding tenet of Christian theology holds that Jesus is the Messiah, and therefore the prophecy has been fulfilled. A similar longstanding tenet of Jewish theology, while not embraced by all Jewish people, holds that Jesus was a great teacher but that he was not the Messiah, and so the Messiah is still to come. Nevertheless, both faiths are in accord on the prophecy itself, which is the context for the verse’s appearance in the Book of Psalms.
The verse appears again, no less than five times, in the New Testament, a holy text in Christianity but not in Judaism. It’s repeated verbatim in Matthew 21:9 and Mark 11:9, and again in a slightly different wording, in John 12:13, as the praises of the multitudes upon Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. In Matthew 23:39 and Luke 13:35, Jesus voices the verse, in the context of denouncing the scribes and Pharisees, mourning the plight of Jerusalem, and promising that the Messiah will come a second time.
The New Testament instances of the verse don’t figure in Jewish belief, so it seems that the wise rector and the wise rabbi apparently chose to focus on the appearance of the verse in the Book of Psalms, where the theologies of both Judaism and Christianity converge.
Or could it be that the rector and the rabbi understood more than just the theological foundation of the verse? After all, knowledge is one thing; the wisdom to apply that knowledge is something else altogether.
Ed Turberg, the history keeper of St. James Episcopal Church, shared a transcript of an interview during which the Reverend Glover told the story of the painting of the verse above the doors. Mr. Turberg, who knows both his Bible and his history, also knows how to take the longer and broader view of events. While it’s true that the strict theological interpretation of the verse references the coming of the Messiah, Mr. Turberg sees its importance in a more “everyman” sense.
“I feel it means that any person who is coming into the building is coming in the name of the Lord. You believe and then you come, and it doesn’t matter what your sect is or anything of that sort,” said Mr. Turberg. “It’s a welcome mat above the door.”
Indeed. A gold-leaf welcome mat, a legacy of blessing from two wise men who chose the grace and peace of sharing common ground.