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Ecumenical 'movement of the faithful' embraces churches and community groups

John Boonstra

John Boonstra

After 17 years as executive minister of the Washington Association of Churches, the Rev. John Boonstra, a proponent of the association’s vision of building “a movement of the faithful,” leaves the association on Oct. 15.

“For congregations to be faithfully obedient, we must be involved in civic life, speaking with a loud, clear voice on issues of social justice, without playing into party politics,” he said. 

The Washington Association of Churches (WAC) has long had an educational role, gathering people in churches to inform them so they can discern solutions for issues—particularly on health care, hunger, housing and tax justice. 

“As people are better informed, we encourage them to take responsibility to be active in the public policy formation,” he clarified.

John came to the WAC from work with the Frontier Internship and Mission Program and the Urban-Rural Mission Network of the World Council of Churches.  In that role from 1985 to 1988, he traveled around the world out of the headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I believe that the mission of God precedes the mission of the church.  For the church to be ecumenical is for Christians to realize that the people of God do not carry ID cards and to hope that the church expresses God’s mission in the world,” he said.

“In fact, the church often receives God’s mission through activities of labor unions and community organizations,” John continued.  “For the ecumenical movement to be broader, it must embrace the institutional church and organizations beyond the walls of the institutional churches.”

So the WAC helps connect teachers, state employees, service workers, labor unions, tribal councils, immigration agencies, farmers, environmental organizations, nonprofits and community organizations, as well as regional churches and congregations.

 “For the ecumenical movement to advance God’s mission, we need to be part of a wider table,” he said.

“Ecumenism has been about everyone—the whole inhabited earth—being at the table,” John said.  “The danger is that an representative council may act based on the lowest common denominator,  to hold everyone at the table.”

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, churches passed resolutions on social issues.  Those served as a basis for justice action on the ecumenical level.

John finds, however, there has been a change from the narrative of “Have we got a statement for you!” to involving people in congregations in social justice action. 

“The Christian right has politicians’ attention.  Politicians need to hear from progressive Christians, too,” he said, defining “the progressive agenda” as a commitment to creative social change that will bring about a community founded in justice and equity for all people.

The WAC is an association of 10 Christian communions coming together to learn from each other and “wrestle with what it is to be faithful in our world and community, and what it is to lead Christians from a preoccupation with charity to a preoccupation with building justice in society,” he said.

Those communions include African Methodist Episcopal, Evergreen Baptist, Church of the Brethren, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist, Presbyterian USA, Unitarian and United Church of Christ churches, and Catholic religious orders in the state.

“We chose to form an ecumenical table without straining over questions of membership.  While interfaith relations are in the future, we need progress in Christian cooperation,” John said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and ethics at Hope College in Michigan, John, the son of a Reformed Church in America pastor who grew up in Iowa and Rochester, N.Y., went on to San Francisco Theological Seminary, graduating in 1975.  He served a year with the National Council of Churches’ Joint Strategy and Action Committee and about four years with the World Student Christian Federation.

Moving to Seattle, he worked several years with the Pacific Northwest Interfaith Network for Economic Justice, with the Center for Ethics and Urban Policy, as an editor for Orbis books and as a volunteer with the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

Because the Reformed Church in America did not ordain women, he, in solidarity, was not ordained after seminary.  In 1984 in Seattle, he decided to be ordained in the United Church of Christ, which ordains women.

When he came to the WAC in 1989, churches embraced an ecumenical movement that was moving from a church-council model into bilateral and trilateral dialogues among confessions.

Today, local and regional ecumenical agencies promote collaboration and partnership, more than ecclesiastical dialogue.

The shift from interdenominational communication and cooperation does not mean the WAC abandons that work.  The WAC will still keep denominations in dialogue and ecumenical organizations in conversation with each other.

“There is still a role for the world and national church councils to bring churches together to experience a deeper sense of community, and to understand themselves as a moral community,” John affirmed.

In fact, when institutional churches are not working together, he believes Christ’s ministry is diminished.

John pointed out that ecumenical agencies do two things that churches cannot do alone:

1) They can build a progressive, prophetic faith-based movement influencing community public policy and moving society from charity to social justice.

2) They can bring churches into closer relationship with organizational players of other segments of society.

The WAC has developed a curriculum, “Faithful Advocacy Workshops,” to help congregations discuss moral and ethical issues, reflect on program possibilities and decide to work together.

 It believes there are 50,000 Christians concerned about education, the state budget, discrimination, health care, nursing home funding, labor justice, tax reform, hunger, affordable housing and other justice issues. 

The WAC has hired Richard Wells, formerly an Industrial Areas Foundation organizer in King County, as its social justice program organizer. 

It will also hire an executive minister and an operations director.  A volunteer is helping with financial development.

Financially, dollars denominational partners give remain steady, but the cost of living is up. 

“For denominations to keep the dollar amounts represents strong support,” John said, “given pressures of rising health insurance and infrastructure costs.”

When John first came, the WAC had $80,000 from national denominations.  Now it receives about $10,000, but donations from congregations and individuals are up from about $25,000 in 2004 to $112,000 last year.  There is also support from unions.

John, 57, decided to follow his wife, the Rev. Vicky Stifter, who was recently called to serve the Riverside Community Church in Hood River, Ore., beginning in mid October.  In late September, he was called to serve as pastor of Bethel Congregational Church, across the Columbia River in White Salmon, Wash.

Having never been a local church pastor, he said that he seeks to do more to accompany people in their spiritual lives.

For information, call 206-625-9790 or visit www.thewac.org.

 

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © October 2006