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Global encounters transform perceptions

Encounters with a malnourished boy in Tanzania, a Pentecostal pastor in Chile and an Orthodox woman in Albania transformed Marion Best, lending insights to her 15 years of leadership with the World Council of Churches. 

Marion Best

Marion and Jack Best in Spokane

She shared those stories and related them to the 9th Assembly in February at Porto Alegre, Brazil, and to the life of that ecumenical organization for The Fig Tree’s Faith in Action Dialogue in November at Whitworth College.

• In Tanzania, her inability to help a shirtless, barefoot boy in torn shorts left Marion in tears when she learned that giving him her extra T-shirt would mean others would fight him for it.

Feeling powerless, she questioned the unjust global economy that left him so malnourished he was mentally challenged.

• In Chile, she found Catholic cell groups had faded.  The groups had empowered women through Bible studies to march for human rights and start businesses to support themselves after men disappeared under the Pinochet regime.  She heard that as men returned and women sought to retain their financial independence, domestic violence and divorce rose.

She met Pentecostal pastors working with blue-collar workers, garbage collectors, peasants, the socially marginalized, alcoholics and ethnic minorities to renew them as individuals, so they could change their lives and communities.

• In Albania, she felt a sense of urgency about mission and evangelism.  Of 440 priests 50 years ago, only 22 frail, elderly priests remained after years of repression, and only 80 of 1,200 church buildings were still standing.

Marion saw signs of the church’s resurrection at a seminary training 150 men and 50 women, people restoring and rebuilding churches, churches running a refugee camp for mostly Muslims, and seminarians required to help in emergency services.

A 40-year-old woman told her she had decided to be baptized, because she realized from family names, traditions and celebrations—although not identified ostensibly as Christian during the years it was unsafe—that her family had been Orthodox.

Marion asked in opening her presentation here:  “How willing are we to take seriously Jesus’ prayer ‘that all may be one so the world may believe’ or the 1952 Lund Principle of common mission that ‘churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately’?”

She shared how worship and stories transform local, regional and global ecumenical efforts.

For 30 years in her Naramata, B.C. congregation—one of 65 Canadian United-Anglican churches—liturgies, music, beliefs and systems different from her own stirred discomfort, patience and new understandings.

That helped pave the way for her involvement with the World Council of Churches, which integrates church unity and renewal with healing human community, she said.

Serving on WCC governing bodies and as vice-moderator the past seven years required “patience, humility, imagination and courage.”  It also called her outside her comfort zone of faith and culture, listening to the angry and the dispossessed, and learning to “live with the contradiction of seeing people with nothing compared to us in material terms, and yet often be richer and wiser about life, and clearer about God.”

Starting with 147 churches from 44 countries in 1948 and now having 346 member churches in 126 countries, the WCC’s life requires continual renewal.

Marion’s encounter with the boy during a 1985 WCC Christian Lay Leadership Training in Tanzania made questions of aid, development, debt and structural adjustment real for her.  So did seeing vestiges of European culture—choir robes, hymns and a picture of a white Jesus—continuing from colonial times. 

She connected those questions to colonization of First Nations in Canada, where the government is now paying reparations for having boarding schools, and churches are making settlements about abuse at boarding schools they ran.

Meeting another time with leaders of the Pentecostal Church of Chile, founded in the early 1900s and one of the few Pentecostal members of the WCC, she realized the importance of dialogue to build understanding and respect for and among the 400 million Pentecostals worldwide.

Her group met 200 laymen—many illiterate field workers—who come every two months for training in Bible, worship and evangelism.  Evenings, they preach, witness, meet and lead little, rural, open-air churches.  Many had been alcoholics, but became dependable workers and good family people because the church connected moral, clean living with economic prosperity.

Marion joined a several-block procession, picking up people along the way until 800 gathered for a vibrant three-hour evening worship featuring choirs, guitars, tambourines, loud prayers, and much praising and shouting.

When someone asked, “How have you been able to be so successful working with the poor?” the pastor replied, “We don’t work with the poor, we are the poor.”

Marion’s week of immersion in the Orthodox Church in Albania opened her to ways the church has moved from systematic extermination to resurrection.  Mission and evangelism are critical, because the existence of Christian faith in Albania depends on them.

“Two generations had no contact with faith in a time of suffering and fear. Public worship, religious symbols, crossing oneself, saying grace and religious literature were banned,” she summarized.

When political reforms started in 1991, the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church asked Archbishop Anastasios to visit Albania.

The Archbishop had three goals for reestablishing the church: local leadership, local language and local finances.  The WCC has given program and personnel support, but each project must have some Albanian financial support.

“The church is not here only for itself.  It is for everyone,” a priest said, adding, “At the last judgment I will not be congratulated for my theological writings. I will be asked why I didn’t help a certain old woman.” 

In 10 years, the church has established a diagnostic medical clinic, preschools, public schools, a technical school, a radio station and summer camps for children and teens, welcoming people of any or no stated faith.

Anastasios said: “You come to understand your own suffering as sharing in God’s suffering. People sometimes think the cross is a death symbol or a stop along the way to the resurrection, but the resurrection is in the cross.”

Marion observed there a transformation of individuals, communities, society and churches.

Her immersion in the WCC was heightened at assemblies in Canberra, Harare and Porto Alegre.

Seeds sown at Vancouver heightened global awareness of indigenous peoples’ agendas.  The 1991 Canberra Assembly opened with Australian Aborigines welcoming participants to worship, inviting them to walk through smoke of a sacred fire at the entrance of the worship tent.  Didgeridoo sounds filled the air. For some, it was a cultural curiosity.  Some called it pagan worship and others familiar with native spirituality welcomed the authenticity of a people sharing their worship with visitors to their land.

The other issues there included Professor Chung Hyng Kyung of Korea using feminine images of God, blending Korean remembrances of ancestors in worship and speaking of han as unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, particularly by women.

“Her presentation was greeted with resounding applause by some and resounding silence by others,” Marion said.  “With issues raised by the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, her presentation became a flash point and led to tensions in and among member churches.” 

Canberra was Marion’s first taste of being one body, singing one another’s hymns with gusto, saying the Lord’s prayer simultaneously in hundreds of languages, recognizing common concerns and making commitments to work together, but Orthodox worshippers could not partake in the common Eucharist service offered at that assembly.

“At the heart of their beliefs, the Eucharist is the expression of unity, not a means toward it,” she said.  “It reminded us that we are a brokenbody of Christ, not yet at the unity Christ calls us to.”

By the 8th Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998, the 22 Orthodox Churches—200 million of the WCC’s 450 million members in member churches—requested that particular attention be paid to their relationship with the WCC. 

The Harare Assembly established a Special Commission with equal numbers of Orthodox and Protestant/Anglican members. It met for three years and made recommendation on ecclesiology, membership, worship and decision-making in the Council. Their recommendations were adopted and affect the Council’s life.  

In Porto Alegre, the Council moved to consensus decision-making, except for finance, elections and constitutional changes.

The words “common prayer” were used instead of “worship,” because worship for Orthodox includes Eucharist.  The morning common prayers in Porto Alegre, however, were much like previous morning worship services.

Marion is proud of how the WCC has addressed HIV and AIDS, helping people in churches talk about it, educate and advocate, moving from the shame and denial attached to this crisis.

For her Friday presentation, she shared parts of the 9th assembly’s opening and closing worship services, gathering people divided by nations, wars, greed and lust for power, so that their groans might be transformed into joy by the God of life, love and peace.

For the opening service in Brazil,people brought symbols:

• A bell from Asia represented the need to hear the cries of people suffering from abuse, wars, earthquakes, poverty and the struggle for justice in Asia.

• Sugar cane from the Caribbean represented cries to deal with pollution, drug trafficking, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS.

• A reindeer calf skin reminded people of cries from Europeans who carry a tradition of death, wars, conquests, exploitation, racism and genocide, with a rising gap between rich and poor.

• Fruits and a Salvadoran cross were brought forward on behalf of Latin Americans who lack shelter, food, health, respect and rights, and who seek respect for indigenous peoples and an end to violence.

• A Coptic Orthodox icon from the Middle East brought a call to respect gifts of cultures and traditions in the midst of tyranny, injustice, inequity and hearts heavy with the politics of frustration, starvation, humiliation and dehumanization.

• North Americans brought wheat, corn and sweet grass from a place inhabited by people from many lands who have trampled heavily on the earth, not loved First Nations or other ethnicities, and failed to speak truth to power.

• People of the Pacific brought a woven mat and a ceremonial bowl, aware of rising oceans, sinking islands and lost heritages, people harmed by nuclear testing, people calling for accountability and seeking their island of hope.

• People from Africa brought a Shona stone from Turkana, the cradle of civilization, where people are torn by nationalities, wars, greed and lust for power, and people have resilience and spiritual strength.

Marion shared actions and words from the opening worship as a prayer with a sung response:  “Come Now, O God of Peace.”

She then reflected on the assembly’s prayer theme, “God in Your Grace, Transform the World.”

For her, it expresses the tension between “leaving it to God” and believing it is up to us to “transform the world.”

“We focused on transformation of our lives, our witness, our churches, our societies and our world. Psalm 36 speaks of an abiding belief in God’s steadfast love. Over and over, I experienced people from difficult situations in their countries, churches and lives testifying to the hope within them. It was humbling,” she said.

Marion Best

Marion Best

Each day began with 4,000 people at the common prayer in a big tent on campus. Services included singing, a call to worship, and a procession with the Bible, a candle and the symbol for the day.   There were no sermons, just Scripture, music, prayers for the world and the Lord’s Prayer.

Then participants went to Bible Study groups with people whose lives contrasted politically, economically and socially.

“Reflecting on Scripture in the light of our different contexts, our understanding, care and concern for each other grew,” she said.

Next, delegates went to ecumenical conversation groups on 22 topics.  Marion met with a group of 80 to discuss “Religious Plurality: Embraced or Feared?”

“We realized no religion is an island.  Many people are looking for spirituality, but not in places, institutions and forms it has been found before. It seems to be a search for meaning without belonging—a challenge for all religions,” she said.

“There is concern that dialogue between different religions has been undertaken by professionals, while a dialogue of life happens as people of different religions live their lives together.  We noted the frequent absence of voices of women and youth, outcasts and indigenous peoples in dialogue circles,” Marion continued.

During a two-and-a-half-hour lunch break, people attended worship services in the university chapel, workshops, concerts or committee meetings, or rested on grass and benches on campus.

One noon, two Korean pastors, one from North Korea and one from South Korea, led a service. Their churches, both members of WCC, maintain relationships across their border but cannot meet in Korea.

Afternoons were filled with business sessions or presentations in the plenary hall with 1,700 persons.  Speakers included Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Brazilian President Lula de Silva.

Lula, a former union organizer, spoke of his government’s emphasis on education and health care. A Portuguese colony until the mid-1800s, Brazil was then ruled by military juntas and dictators. 

Even though it is a new democracy with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it is still burdened by billions of dollars of debt to the World Bank. Poverty, unemployment and lack of education and health care are major issues.

Evenings, participants returned to the worship tent for common prayer conducted by different confessions and churches—Anglicans, Pentecostals, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and different Protestants, including services led by women clergy.

One evening there was a candlelight peace rally and march from the center of Porto Alegre to its cathedral.  Young people carried banners.  A Bolivian indigenous Christian spoke and the Catholic Archbishop of Porto Alegre helped light a large candle.  Representatives of other faiths took part in prayers of blessing.

Archbishop Tutu closed the evening with an impassioned address, saying:  “God is a mighty God, but this God needs you.  When God wants to feed the hungry, you and I must do it.  Now God wants peace in the world, so go out and represent our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

This assembly lacked the controversy Marion had experienced at Canberra and Harare.

The liveliest debate was over a paper on alternatives to economic globalization, with divisions between some churches of the North wanting the WCC to work with the World Trade Organization and churches of the South asking for biblical and theological reflection on people’s relationship with power and empire, and on the need to collaborate with social movements.

There was little difficulty reaching consensus on a document on ecclesiology, “Called to Be the One Church,” and sending it for churches to discuss ten questions in moving toward full visible unity, including:

• Does your church recognize a common pattern of Christian initiation, grounded in baptism in the life of other churches?

• Why does your church believe that it is necessary, or permissible, or not possible to share the Lord’s Supper with those of other churches?

• In what ways is your church able to recognize the ordered ministries of others?

• How will your church stand with other churches to contend with social and political hegemonies, persecution, oppression, poverty and violence?

• To what extent does your church share with other churches in faith formation and theological education?

• How fully can your church share in prayer with other churches?

Marion expressed gratitude for churches’ cooperation on the Decade to Overcome Violence, which inspires churches to advocate for human rights, end abuse of women and children, ban arms, move to healing and reconciliation of old rivalries and hurts, protest media violence and child soldiers, and studies and efforts to discern the root causes of violence.

“HIV/AIDS education, primary health care, literacy work, theological education in underprivileged parts of the world, accompaniment of refugees and vulnerable people in danger zones of the world, disability advocacy and much more is the legacy of the WCC since the Harare assembly.

“While church unity is elusive, church co-operation is not,” Marion affirmed.

The most difficult of seven public issues was a “Statement on the Responsibility to Protect” vulnerable populations.

While WCC churches confess together the primacy of non-violence, they asked what their responsibility is when governments fail to protect their citizens—whether by neglect, lack of capacity or direct assaults.

The document asks:  Does the international community have a duty to assist peoples and states, and in extreme situations to intervene in internal affairs of a state to protect people?

The assembly reaffirmed prevention through addressing causes of violence, using violence-reducing intervention and supporting police strategies that address human rights violations.

“Despite some contentious issues in business sessions, we resolved matters before us by consensus during the assembly with a model used and developed by the Uniting Church in Australia.

“I was surprised how well it worked and amazed that 700 people from 346 churches and 128 countries could reach agreement by consensus,” she said.

“Through the process, we stopped often for silence, prayer and a reminder that we sought to discern God’s voice,” Marion said.  “It isn’t a technical process  but a spiritual one. I kept my Bible and prayers from the day’s worship at hand when I was moderating, and used both.”

As moderator, she was careful not to express her opinions.  As a self-discipline she found she needed to let go of preconceived notions or hoped-for outcomes.

In the closing worship on “God in your grace transform our witness,” six people told about their faith and witness.

Marion shared three stories:

Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga, of the National Network of Bolivian People Living with HIV and AIDS, who was infected by a sexual assault, came to know God’s love and rely on God when no one else would help. She called for more involvement: “Whatever problems we have, we work better if we work together.”

Sarah Newland-Martin of the Bethel Baptist Church, Jamaica, was born without legs and abandoned by her family. She has artificial limbs, became a Christian and represented Jamaica in the Pan-American wheelchair games from 1972 to 1982 and in the 1980 para-Olympics. Her life was transformed by her baptism.  Through God’s grace, she met her parents when she was 24 and forgave them for abandoning her.

Korean Professor Namsoon Kang, vice president of the World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions, said her encounter with feminist discourse and the ecumenical movement led to her transformation: “Cheap ecumenism is empty proclamation that we are one in Christ, while nothing is done about exclusion based on age, gender, sexual orientation, color, race or disability. Costly ecumenism accompanies transformation, requiring personal and institutional repentance and acknowledgement that all of us belong to the family of God.”

Preaching for the closing service, Robina Winbush, ecumenical officer of the Presbyterian Church USA, spoke of leaves of the healing tree, referred to in Ezekiel and Revelation.   She named groups and movements, churches and individuals who help heal and transform places where they live and work, Marion said.

Robina closed, asking, “Are you willing to be a leaf on the tree of life, which God uses for the healing of the nations?”  Marion said Robina reminded that the power and strength to be a leaf is the result of being attached to “the tree of life whose roots are watered by the river of life that flows from God. When you grow weary and tired, rest assured that the river of life will nourish you.”

Participants in the Faith in Action Dialogue in Spokane closed by singing a song and saying a prayer that covers many sentiments touched at the assembly, “God in Your Grace.”