The journey of a thousand miles began with a simple prayer; “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” Bags packed and tickets in hand, I set off for this once in a lifetime journey across the continents of the world to the Asian nation of South Korea which hosted the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, still unclear of what awaited me. Yet, cushioned by the prayers of so many members of the church and comforted by the unending support of my dearly departed Bishop, Sarah Frances Davis, together with the blessings of my Supervisor, Claytie Davis Jr., the task at hand suddenly didn’t seem all that daunting. Through it all, my prayer was that I remain open and receptive to all that awaited me. That being said however, I never expected the outpouring of love and fellowship that awaited me in the Dynamic City of Busan.
Busan is home to a warm and hospitable people, who without reservation, welcomed all who visited their shores with open arms, hailing “Eoseo Oshibshio” meaning “you are most welcomed”. The array of lights that illuminate the night sky of this bustling city of 3.6 million people, and located on the tip of the Korean peninsula, is consonant with the fire that burns for God in the hearts of dedicated worshipers. On a Sunday morning, it is quite normal to see thousands of Christians heading to their places of worship, paying homage to their Creator, for the many blessings that they are afforded. Many years of subjugation, political unrest and other hardships have inculcated in the Korean people a spirit of activism and a willingness to publicly display their religious convictions.
Drafted as a steward for the Assembly, I was blessed with the opportunity to gather for prayer each day with my fellow stewards. Bible study and ecummenical centered discussions aimed at generating practical solutions to the issues of the day, together with a focus on the youth in church, played a key role in each day’s proceedings. Prayer, filling the room with a multitude of voices in discrete native tongues, formed what can only be described as the Upper Room experience.
The week preceding the Assembly was spent together in preparation for the jamming that awaited us in accommodating the 8000 strong, 345 member churches, one which assisted us in growing and connecting, not only as Christians from around the globe, but as brothers and sisters, leaning and depending on one another for strength and support through our eccumenical journey. We shared our stories of pain and persecution with the church, we laughed, cried, prayed and roamed the streets of Busan together. The space for sharing our personal stories, dreams and aspirations, were never confined within the sacred walls of Bexco, but spilled over and across incomprehensible menus in cozy Korean restaurants, as the bonds that were begun in Busan became more indelibly etched in our memories but more so in our hearts.
With the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in full swing, thousands of participants and observers from all walks of life, varying backgrounds and levels within the churches, congregated at Bexco each day with the hope of filtering their issues to unspoilt participants. During the breaks, Bishops, Elders, Deaconesses, Ministers, Lay members and youths alike gathered at Madang to share in the search for justice and to be witnesses of each other’s rich eccumenical diversity. Whether over a cup of coffee and sweet red bean paste bun, or simply visiting the many booths that provided a space for meditation, reflection and gaining of knowledge, we were family.
The early morning theme plenaries, where delegates of the WCC Assembly considered direction for the many discussions that would follow, proved to be incisive. Here, speakers called for the concretizing of thoughts and ideas and the transformation of these into social action, causing all of us to live out the theme, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace” in its truest meaning. However, what seemed somewhat perplexing was the breadth of the WCC as the world’s vehicle for global change. Before entering this landscape, my knowledge of this diverse ecummenical movement was quite meagre. However, upon further interrogation, I realized that despite the numerous denominations partaking under one roof, additions to this vast and global initiative have trickled, with only three new additions within the last seven years.
A mass gathering of Christian protesters opposing the WCC 10th Assembly gave a clear indication that all are not aboard the mission and vision of this grand organization. This proved somewhat incongruous as Christians protesting against other Christians’ religious convictions was something that seemed odd. Never before have I witnessed such a spectacle. Coloured by a difficult political past, the notion of complete unification of the body of Christ, with a mantra advocating justice and peace by the WCC, was met with round-the-clock protests. As the start of the Assembly approached, protesters grew from a motley crew bellowing “Accept Jesus and only Jesus”, to thousands shouting biblical slogans casino online and calling for repentance while distributing “NO WCC” pamphlets. Every once in a while, one could be sure to run into a lone protester chastising us with “No WCC….go back to your country”, while others encouraged us to “Repent and turn to Jesus”. But our faith overcame every hostility. Faced with confrontation, verbal lashings and hand gestures, every opposing advance was thwarted in the knowledge and consolation that we have in Jesus who withstood being persecuted much more than we ever could imagine.
The following represent other high points of the trip that I consider worthy of mention:
As a Steward, I was fortunate to work with the office of the General Secretariat under the astute guidance the Rev Garland Pierce (also of the AME Church) , charged with the responresponsibility of attending to the specially invited guests to the Assembly.
Consequently, I was privileged to serve the Archbishop of Canterbury who visited the Assembly, and who called the churches to action by encouraging them to love their persecutors. He also advocated that heads of churches seek to engender change by engaging in interfaith dialogue.
My meeting with charismatic revolutionary leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee was an unforgettable experience. She is responsible for endingLiberia”s Civil War while being a strong advocate for the rights and inclusiveness of all women. She called her people to push past the binary constructions of gender and sexuality which have allowed men to keep women subdued and shared her stories of her vision for peace as she explained her strategy of leading women in a sex strike until peace is restored and justice reclaimed.
Amidst the political lobbying and paper shuffling for WCC business, the youths petitioned the powers of the Assembly, through prayer, to listen to us, to accept our requests and to act on our concerns. But now I turn to you. When you pray, please remember our Christian family in the Middle East who face daily persecution for their faith. Pray for our brothers and sisters of the Pacific Islands who are in danger of losing their homes because we failed to be guardians of our God-given environment. Pray for the widespread unemployment that plagues the African regions and by extension the world. Let us pray for the peaceful reunification of North and South Korea and the disarmament of nuclear weapons. Let us ask Almighty God to free the Caribbean and Latin American regions from gun violence, human trafficking and crippling poverty. Let us remember the European community during their time of financial crisis and double-digit unemployment. Finally, let us pray for the youth of North America who store up treasures on earth as a measure of success rather than seeking the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.
I wish to register my thanks for the opportunity to have represented the 16th District and the African Methodist Episcopal Church with distinction. As an extension to the theme of the Assembly, I urge you to stand in solidarity with us, to live out the call to display justice and to live peaceably with love for Jesus, honouring our fellow man, regardless of their station in life.
Da Rosa Bigford
African Methodist Episcopal Church (Trinidad and Tobago)
(Reprinted from The Christian Recorder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church)