A final flurry

The WCC’s 10th Assembly ended with a flurry of last-minute business, expressions of thanks to all who made it happen–particularly Korean host churches and volunteers who supported the event so generously and the WCC leadership and staff–and goodbyes.

A worship service closed the meeting, with a priest from South Africa giving the message. Interestingly, after 10 days of working on Christian unity, celebrating each other, getting to know each other, learning more about each others’ traditions, praying and singing together, he chose to point out divisions and expressions of hurt or pain that either made or marred the assembly.

I say “made or marred” because the divisions and hurts I saw at the WCC Assembly could be read in at least two ways: as disappointing and destructive of unity, or by virtue of their being able to be voiced openly, as evidence of a commitment to the whole body of Christ.

The setting of the assembly in a divided Korean Peninsula, and the announcement that Christians in North Korea were invited but felt they could not send representatives.

Diversity on sexuality, and speakers who seemed to target one group or another with sometimes hurtful language.

Differences on conscientious objection, with peace churches having to register a dissenting opinion in support of COs.

Indigenous people struggling for recognition, with persistence and tears.

Orthodox in the Middle East and others from the hot spots like northern Nigeria, pleading for ecumenical help for persecuted Christians–with little obvious reactions from the WCC.

Protestors from Korean churches not part of the WCC, who were outside the assembly each day with bullhorns and placards objecting to its being held in their country.

Two protestors ran onto the stage during the closing worship service and were tackled and carried out by security, in a very jarring moment. Stan Noffsinger, our general secretary who has been elected to the WCC Central Committee, let me know WCC leaders did not want to press charges but were told by local authorities the matter was not theirs to decide. I share the concern for how the protestors will be dealt with.

“When we listen to each other’s pain, the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ disappear, and we all become ‘us,’” the preacher reminded the assembly. “Stronger than evil and death are the forces of love, peacefulness, and compassion.”

The benediction and blessing he gave: “May God bless you with enough foolishness so that you truly believe you can make a difference in this world.” Amen.

Peace for a day

Today the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly was all about peace.

Our general secretary Stan Noffsinger represented the peace churches in the plenary session. When he stood on the plenary stage with an Iranian Christian, as an American church leader, he bridged the divide between our two countries. The Iranian woman spoke of the suffering of the ordinary people because of the sanctions against Iran, which are supported by the US. In reply, Stan said, “What courage to speak truth to power,” and he added a personal expression of confession: “May God have mercy on our souls.” It was an emotional and powerful moment.

Then Brethren staff–Stan and Nate Hosler from the Office of Public Witness–joined colleagues in other US churches who are working on peacemaking to lead a “madang” workshop. Yet more powerful moments, as they talked about the foundations of being just peacemakers in the American context, and answered questions about the peace churches’ theological foundations.

The afternoon business session brought a statement on just peace to the floor. Nate, who has been working on the Public Issues Committee, was chosen to introduce the document and read aloud the introduction and recommendations. There was not time to finalize it in today’s business session but the delegate body gave great affirmation to the recommendations. It is expected to be adopted tomorrow.

The peace churches met together this evening, with the primary topic of how to support conscientious objectors in South Korea, who face an 18 month prison sentence when they refuse to go into the military. A young Korean CO came to the meeting and spoke fervently, requesting the help of international brothers and sisters to change the situation. Mennonites report that there are some 700 conscientious objectors in prison in South Korea. The group signaled their support and commitment to work on the issue with Koreans.

Peace church delegates also wrote a dissent for the official record, made necessary when an amendment to include the plight of COs in a statement on peace in the Korean peninsula was rejected in the business session.

These kinds of meetings seem so valuable and important that a discussion has started about creating an international gathering of peace church representatives.

Peace for a day, but a WCC Assembly happens only once every seven or eight years. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do this more often!

— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren

The ins and outs

The ins and outs of how business is processed at this WCC Assembly bothers me. Inscrutable, sometimes inaccessible to the ordinary participant, often incoherent in both meanings of lacking coherence and lacking in communication.

I woke up this morning realizing I have to write about this aspect of the assembly in order to be truthful, but I also don’t want to be unfair. I’m a first-timer at WCC Assemblies and fortunately met up with a seasoned Quaker colleague over breakfast. She helped me put things in perspective having years of ecumenical experience and having been to previous assemblies

From her point of view, things are going far better here at Busan than they have in the past!

“Inscrutable” has been an epithet used against Asia by westerners who, not understanding the cultural differences, find themselves unable to interpret this part of the world. I remembered this history to the word as I pondered what my Quaker colleague had said.

Perhaps I have to take a step back and reconsider my first responses to how this Assembly works.

For example, holding elections in closed session without allowing observers or media in the room seems undemocratic to me.

But it may allow for a level of candor between delegates that is impossible when they are under scrutiny. I hope it allows the WCC to more effectively work at the needed balance of Christian traditions, gender, age, areas of the world, ethnicities, and points of view that is desired in the leadership of the organization.

In another example, there are a few committees appointed in advance of the assembly that seem to exert most of the power in the decision making process. There a number of committees meeting during the assembly, each of which has a separate area of work. This is where documents are vetted and revised, suggestions from the delegate body are received or rejected, with little chance for further amendment or revision once a document comes to the delegate body for decision. The two with the most power are the Public Issues Committee which controls what issues end up addressed in the assembly’s statements, and the Program Guidelines Committee whose job is to set the agenda for future program work of the WCC staff.

But the committee process allows for a lively give and take, albeit with much of it still done behind closed doors. Any delegate can give suggestions in writing to the committees, and churches can create coalitions to support each other’s suggestions and points of view. The committees are large groups of people, with 40-plus people in the Public Issues Committee. The chair of that committee acknowledge to the delegate body their own frustration in having so many issues put before them (they received 22 suggestions for public issues statements) and being forced to choose between them because only so much can be done with the time and resources available.

Another example is the way consensus decision making works here. Perhaps because of the size of the hall, perhaps because of the lighting, moderators–there are separate moderators for each item of business–are not seeing or acknowledging how often delegates raise cards to signal disagreement.

But maybe, as I heard some peace church people say the other day, this is just part of the way the ecumenical animal grows and matures together. Different parts of the body of Christ move at different speeds, and some parts will always be ahead of other parts. Some parts of the body will always have to wait for other parts to catch up.

The point where I still have concerns is the way documents, and sometimes key sections of documents, appear and disappear without explanation. It’s all part of the process, but what is that process, how does it work, and who is making the decisions?

For example, the message from the peace convocation held in Jamaica, which was touted as the culmination of the whole Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV), is playing no role in this assembly. Instead, an entirely new just peace document appeared on the agenda, apparently pulled together only in the last couple of months.

Another example: a wonderfully egalitarian process in the ecumenical conversation group I sat in on, on the topic of “human security,” culminated in a really good one-page summary of the concerns and affirmations voiced by the group. It was put up on a large screen during the last of the group’s four daily meetings and every person present had a chance to suggest changes and revisions that were accepted by the facilitator.

But when I looked eagerly for that summary in yesterday’s handout of outcomes of the ecumenical conversations, portions of the “human security” summary had disappeared. Points that might be considered more controversial or more difficult to deal with ecumenically were no longer there.

What does this say about the ecumenical movement? My Quaker colleague asserts that we are moving in the right direction. What is inscrutable now will become inextricably woven together.

I have to say, amen. But add my own prayer: God, make this body into your Kingdom reality–sooner rather than later!

Some invisible hand

When I got back from the “Pilgrimage of Peace” hosted by the Korean churches in the Seoul area, I downloaded the photographs from the weekend. Much to my surprise, on my camera were some pictures that I had not taken.

The pictures were of our busload of WCC Assembly participants singing for the Ansan Jeil Presbyterian Church, where we worshiped on Sunday morning. I had left my camera in the pew when we went up front to sing, and someone from the congregation sitting nearby must have picked it up and taken the pictures for me.

This Korean Christian sister or brother must have known I would love to have those pictures, and indeed I do! It was a wonderful, surprising, unexpected gift.

One of the speakers used the phrase “some invisible hand” in Tuesday’s plenary session. He was telling a story from the life of the indigenous people of Canada–but as I heard him say that phrase my mind went off on a tangent and I thought of my unknown picture taker.

And I thought, is that how God works? How often does God show up unexpectedly in our lives? Sometimes very quietly. Sometimes invisibly, until suddenly you see the results of God’s handiwork.

— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren


“I’m overwhelmed by your presence here tonight,” said pastor Samhwan Kim, moderator of the Korea Host Committee for the WCC Assembly and pastor of Myungsung Presbyterian Church. He was speaking to ecumenical guests from around the world who helped fill his sanctuary Saturday evening in Seoul.

Overwhelmed and overwhelming. Exactly right to describe the weekend. Hundreds of WCC participants went on a two-day “Pilgrimage of Peace” organized by the Korea Host Committee and hosted by Korean Christians and their congregations.

Overwhelmed…by the gifts we received from the Korean churches, starting off with a warm pullover emblazoned with the WCC logo to make the high speed train trip from Busan to Seoul more comfortable.

Overwhelmed…by the bus trip to the observatory on Mt. Dora on the edge of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) where we prayed for peace under the auspices and eyes of the South Korean military, while looking over into North Korea.

Overwhelmed…by the sumptuous banquet provided by Pastor Kim’s church that night, and subsequent delicious meals to which other Korean hosts treated us.

Overwhelmed…by the Korean cultural program in Myungsung’s beautiful cathedral. The fan dance and jindo drum dance performed by the National Dance Company of Korea. A performance of traditional Korean story set to music by master singer Sooksun Ahn. The overture to a Verdi opera played by the KBS Symphony Orchestra directed by Seunghan Choi. Opera singers tenor Yoonseok Hahn and soprano Youngmi Kim and an octet performing “A Longing for Mt. Kumgang” among other Korean favorites. A dramatic rendition of the history of Christianity in Korea. The Myungsung combined church choir of 800 voices singing a hymn written by Pastor Kim. The Hallelujah Chorus bursting out at the end of the evening.

Overwhelmed…by the warm welcome from another large Presbyterian church some 40 kilometers away, who put up a busload of us at a hotel for the night and then welcomed us into worship this morning.

Overwhelmed…by the love shared at the Ansan Jeil Church. Senior pastor, reverend Ko Hoon, has over his decades there grown the congregation from a small church to a congregation of about 20,000 members, with some 10,000 people worshiping in 7 services each Sunday.

Overwhelmed…by the gift of hand made soap from the Ansan Jeil Church’s ministry which employs people living with disabilities.

Overwhelmed…by the amount of work and resources put into the WCC Assembly by the Korea Christians. The ecumenical officer of the Presbyterian Church in Korea, who accompanied our bus group, and who has personally worked on this event for more than a year, shared these numbers: 24 people in the Korean Host Committee, 300 Korean Christian volunteers working to support the assembly, 30 denominational staff are attending the whole of the WCC Assembly from the three main denominations in the host committee and the Korean National Council of Churches, with several other denominational staff attending two or three days each in order to get a taste of the event.

Overwhelmed…by the requests for prayer. “We need your prayers for the peace of the Korean Peninsula,” said the PCK ecumenical officer. The weekend Pilgrimage of Peace made it clear that Korean Christians deal continually with the political and military division of the Korean peninsula.

Overwhelmed…by the stories other Christians are sharing from the many places around the world where persecution, violence, terrorism, war, and other dangers threaten.

God of life, lead us to justice and peace.

–Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren

Weekend in Seoul

I leave early tomorrow morning for Seoul, one of hundreds of participants in the WCC Assembly who will be speeding up to the capital city of South Korea on a bullet train for a visit to the DMZ, the Peace Park, and on Sunday morning to Korean congregations from a variety of Christian traditions. It should be an exciting weekend!

The invitation brochure from the Presbyterian Church in Korea advises participants that the ministers among us may be invited to preach, so be prepared.

As an ordained minister, I wonder if I will be asked. Would a Korean congregation want to hear from a Church of the Brethren woman? And there will be many more senior ministers there, not to mention bishops and archbishops. So I expect not.

However, just in case I am mentally framing a little something I could say using a text from Philippians that has become my scriptural touchstone during this ecumenical experience. The questions I’d love to discuss with Korean Christians and indeed with Christians from every nation, stem from this verse in 1:27.

What could happen in our world if American Christians and Korean Christians, not to mention Christians in other countries, would stand firm together in the Spirit?

In what new ways would our suffering world be comforted and cared for, if Christians across all national boundaries strove side by side?

How could we attain one mind, the mind of Christ, despite our many differences in the worldwide church?

And where does the faith of the gospel lead us in this 21st century?

–Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is attending the WCC 10th Assembly as director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren