Monday, February 28, 2011

wandering together

I was asked by my presbytery to reflect on my experience in Geneva at the World Council of Churches these past two weeks, and I'll include those thoughts here (followed by a lot of pictures just for you lovely blog folks).

A Gathering Place for the Wandering People of God: Reflections on Serving as a Steward for the World Council of Churches 2011 Central Committee Meeting”

What do you get when you throw together fifteen young adults from diverse contexts (Sri Lanka, Belarus, Haiti, Myanmar, Madagascar, Sweden, Columbia, Texas and others) and diverse denominational backgrounds (Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and others)? The answer: deep, authentic community through the Spirit. We were gathered together to serve as part of the Stewards Programme, where we assisted in putting on the meeting of the Central Committee, the highest governing body of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. We were there to build ecumenical community, to learn about the work and ministry of the WCC and to make sure that the Central Committee meeting ran smoothly through everything from worship bulletins in 4 languages to translation headsets to documents being distributed. I came expecting to be refreshed by encounters with different cultures and traditions, to be reminded of how much God is at work in this world and of how we all belong to one another no matter where we're from.

God has a way of shattering even our greatest expectations. I didn't just discover people of all cultures and languages being one in Christ. I didn't just discover how much I have to learn from the majority of the church that is the non-Western world. I didn't just discover how much my Western, privileged experience has shaped my understanding of God. (Though I did discover these things.) I discovered the real presence of God.

I saw God everywhere around me: in impromptu conversations about peace with the General Secretary of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa, in the ability of people to communicate profoundly without words, in the prophetic and courageous witness of the WCC that refuses to segregate faith from practice. I watched God speak through the stories of Christians in the Middle East whose persecution is profound, and even sometimes increased by Western intervention in their land. Through the stories of my friend Rose-Mika in Haiti who struggles to find hope for her people who say that God has abandoned them, when in reality the rest of the world has abandoned that small post-colonial country to environmental destruction, economic oppression and total isolation in a wealthy world. Through crafting worship for a community where all are included and prayers are prayed or sung in Mandarin, Russian, Zulu and French and we are too focused on worshipping God together in our diversity to argue over the order of the liturgy or the length of the sermon. Through watching the Central Committee make important decisions not by majority but by consensus, where all are given the chance to speak and a decision is only reached when all are heard and agree with one voice. Through letting go of my white American need to speak in order to let my sisters and brothers who have been long silenced be heard. Through shedding my over-educated theological ideas about God to embrace a God who, beyond my understanding, is God of all people with particular concern for those who are kept on the margins.

The worship space at the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Centre (pictured above) is designed to feel like a tent, and described as a “gathering place for the wandering people of God.” It is a safe place where tables of prosperity and power are overturned to include the least of these first, where we pray together with one voice in many languages and confess that Jesus is our peace. Those of you who kept up with my reflections on the two years I spent in Belfast will know that reconciliation is “my thing” - a core part of my calling. At the World Council of Churches, I discovered what reconciliation put into ecumenical practice looks like: a place where women and men create healthy supportive relationships, where brave actions are taken to support Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, where commitment is made together to sustain our shared planet, where theological and cultural differences are valued and not feared and where we suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice.

To learn more about the important work of the World Council of Churches (and to see pictures/news from the Central Committee meeting) go here:

(Okay, article done, now onto fun pictures...)

The amazing ceiling in the assembly hall of the WCC. It's meant to look like waves.

Rose-Mika from Haiti and Krystsina from Belarus on our Cultural Night (I donned a bandana and did a lil' line dancin').

I adored the chapel at the WCC. This is the door leading into it.

You can really get a feel for how it was designed to be like a tent as a "gathering place for the wandering people of God."

Orthodox folks light a candle as they enter worship, and so we incorporated this into services. I started doing it too; there's something so centering and hopeful about it.

We visited Lausanne Cathedral as well and participated in a Reformed worship service, where communion was shared all standing in a circle in the front of the church.
Priscilla from Sri Lanka and me.

This woman was passing out bread during communion. She speaks French (I don't) and so she just stopped a moment and looked deeply at me as she handed me the bread. There was such love and care in her eyes that I found mine tearing up. Words are overrated.

A few notes and doodles during the Central Committee Meeting. You can't quite read all of it, but I had written the theme that was decided for the next WCC meeting in Busan, South Korea in 2013: "God of life: lead us to justice and peace."

Orthodox priests had the best hats.

Some of the other stewards and Faautu our leader. We all had so much fun together.

Dalibor (from Serbia) and I had a little dance time outside the John Knox Centre (where we stayed).

I also worshipped in an orthodox church, which was a powerful experience. I have such respect for their priests...they sing every single part of the service. Just beautiful.

Having a little fun at the end of a 12-hour work day.

Voting was consensus model, with people showing support by holding up an orange card and dissent by holding up a blue card. Everyone with a blue card had the right to speak before moving on. It was a lengthy process, but made sure that all were included and none took over the vote.

Oh, the chocolate. It even came in fun colors!

(Ecumenical chocolate is especially delicious.)

This is Calvin's church where he preached for some time in Geneva. You can see how it was stripped of all of its extravagance and art to become more simple and basic.

We also visited Chilon Castle on a perfectly medieval rainy day.

Golden early morning Geneva light shining through wintry, spindly trees.

Priscilla let us play dress up in her saris. Such a beautiful thing to wear.

Faautu, our leader, and me on our last night. She's from Samoa and always wears a flower behind her ear. I love that.

It snowed on our final morning in Geneva, sending us off in a lovely, peaceful way.

If you'd like to see all of my pictures, go here.


Lynn said...

What a special time this was for you, Whitney. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and beautiful images. I feel lifted in the spirit now and ready for the day.

The Slicer said...

One word - wow!

Anonymous said...

Wow, Whitney. You probably don't remember me. I babysat you and your sister(S?) from time to time when you'd visit your grandparents in Alice. Anyway, your blog was posted on the FPC Facebook page so I checked it out. You are extraordinary! Congratulations on all your successes and I loved reading about your trip to the WCC. Way to go, Texas girl! :-)


Niki Kruckenberg Rabren

Whitney said...

Lynn, thank you. It was such a phenomenal experience.

Slicer (aka John), thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed it.

Niki, I think I do remember you! I used to love getting to spend time in that fun room whenever we went to my Grandparents church. And I won't ever forget the yummy lemonade. :) Thanks for reading my little blog. It's been a great way for me to record God's presence in my days. I hope you're doing great!