TAMPA, FL. – The focus of this year's National Council of Churches meeting is "solidarity." Two days into the conference held in Tampa Bay, Fla, from Nov 14-16, the word "solidarity" has been on the minds, if not in the speeches, of the participating speakers.
In this "post 9-11 age... we need a new and better vision of what it means to be one in Christ," said the Rev. Fred Morris, director of the Florida Council of Churches, during the opening speech given to the general assembly. "That vision has to be around the concept of solidarity."
It is often difficult to elicit compromise and agreement within a body as diverse as the National Council of Churches. The council consists of 36 mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches encompassing 50 million adherents; 140,000 of which is in local congregations. But solidarity, a commitment to the general welfare, is another matter.
The theme of the 2002 assembly was "For the Common Good: Seeking Justice, Working for Peace." Nearly 200 delegates convened for the opening session, which included an inspiring stage presentation by the Presbyterian Church's Thuma Mina Mission Theatre Company, a bible study by Dr. Mozella Mitchell of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, and an address by Dr. Dana L. Robert, Truman Collins Professor of World Mission at Boston University School of Theology.
"Among the many reasons why we celebrate the Mission Education Movement today," Dr. Robert said, "is that it links the Eurocentric Christianity of 1902 to the global community of 2002. The Mission Education Movement was the major way in which mainline Protestants, who numerically dominated North American missions until the late 1960s, taught ordinary church goers about the mission of the church¡¦"
"Despite its well-publicized faults," she said, "the missionary movement planted the seeds and cultivated the world church that exists today. Mission education was the way in which many denominations came to look beyond themselves to a grand vision of the kingdom in which all of Christ's people have a place at the table."
Dr. Roberts acknowledged that divisions within the mission today "runs like a fault line" down the middle of many denominations, "But as long as injustice and oppression remain, as long as people do not experience the power of the living Christ in their lives, as long as our people remain complacent about their obligation to work toward God's reign in the world, then we still need a Mission Education Movement."
On Friday, Dr. Tarek Mitri approached the issue of solidarity from another angle- addressing the Christian-Muslim relations. Dr. Mitri is an Orthodox Christian from Lebanon, and is the Program Executive for Christian-Muslim relations and Dialogue with the World Council of Church in Switzerland.
"It is not uncommon to see people rushing to explain terrorist violence in the light of what they perceive to be distinctive about Islam. Thus, they fail to see that such violence is not grounded in traditional Islamic values," Dr. Mitri said. "But quite the contrary, it is provoked by the loss of such values.."
"Christianity and Islam are not two monolithic blocks confronting each other.. In dialogue with each other, they understand justice to be a universal value grounded in their faith and are called to take sides with the oppressed and marginalized, irrespective of their religious identity" said Dr. Mitri.
Following Dr. Mitri's address, the delegates engaged in debate of how best to help Christians who suffer harassment and persecution. For example, Dr. Mitri posed the rhetorical question: can Coptic Christians in Egypt best improve their religious and civil rights through struggle together of Christians and Muslims, affirming their co-citizenship and patriotism, or do they ask foreign support to destabilize their own home country?
Another delegate asked whether Middle Eastern Muslims are working to mitigate their stereotypes of American Christians. Dr. Mitri replied that some are, noting the response to recent statements made by televangelist Jerry Falwell. Falwell had called the founder of Islam a terrorist, which was immediately repudiated by the NCC. The Egyptian press, which normally attacks Western Christian Protestantism, highlighted the statement from the NCC, acknowledging that US Christians are divided on the issues. Ten years ago, this sort of distinction would not have been made, so "this is an improvement," Dr. Mitri said.
Lastly, Dr. Mitri shared a letter from Riad Jarjour, General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches. Expressing alarm that the Middle East was "on the brink of all-out war," Dr. Jarjour wrote, "we plead with you to exert your spiritual authority to urge the (Bush) administration to seek peace and to do justice with compassion."
Also on Friday:
- The Rev. Dr. Major L. Jemison, President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., led worship, and the Rev. Dr. Robert H. Roberts of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. led Bible study.
- Delegates reflected together about the "Changing Landscape of the Ecumenical Movement Today" and what its implications are on for the future of the National Council of Churches. Among visions expressed: a re-energizing of ecumenical work for racial justice, ecumenical formation of Christian youth, an ecumenical movement concerned both with social justice and with theology and mission, and closer relationships between national ecumenism and local congregations.
- The Assembly began debate with the statement, "After September 11, 2001:
Public Policy Considerations for the United States of America."
- Delegates participated in forums on Christian-Muslim relations, public
education, ministerial ethics and accountability, Africa, health care for all, Christian feminism, Middle East peace, diversity and bioethics.
- NCC General Secretary Robert W. Edgar and President Elenie Huszagh brought reports, confirming among other things the Council's financial stability and optimistic outlook for 2002-2003.
- John L. McCullough, Executive Director of Church World Service – the global humanitarian agency of the 36 member churches - updated the Assembly on work including a new Africa Initiative, Dec. 1-11 concert tour to raise money for HIV/AIDS ministries in Africa, and advocacy on behalf of asylum seekers, especially for the more than 200 Haitians who landed by boat in Florida Oct. 29. The 2002 General Assembly continues through Saturday night, November 16. See www.ncccusa.org for more information.
By Roy Li