Students Celebrate Christian Diversity & Similarity

Jan 15, 2003 11:39 AM EST

About 1,100 participants turned out for Celebrate IV: Weave Us Together, an ecumenical conference for college students in which about 1,100 participants were "woven together" into a spiritual community that included Catholics and Protestants, Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists. They all came together from around the globe to celebrate their common faith in Christ, and their diversity.

The five-day festival at the Albuquerque Convention Center, which ended on New Year's Day, was co-sponsored by the Council for Ecumenical Student Christian Ministry (CESCM), and the National Catholic Student Coalition. CESCM is a partnership of students and higher-education staff from several denominations.

The fourth such gathering, Celebrate served as a forum, a "safe" place for the students to broaden their theological horizons by stepping out of their individual denominations and getting a glimpse of all of Christendom.

"I think everyone hears the gospel and hears a kernel of goodness out of that," said Jolinda Matthews, the CESCM staff member who served as administrative coordinator for the event. "And only when we gather together and hear these little kernels does it all come together."

Dialogue and interaction

Celebrate was designed to let the mostly 18- to 25-year-olds gain ecumenical knowledge and find out about other Christian denominations through open dialogue and personal interaction. They discussed their churches' differences and similarities and shattered some misconceptions. They also exercised their student-leadership skills and talked about how to work for social justice.

Members of about 20 Christian denominations attended the event, which is held every four years. Celebrate officials said the Lutherans had the largest group, with 327, followed by Catholics (248), Methodists (156) and Episcopalians (151). Many other participants described themselves as "ecumenical" or "non-denominational." A handful of students represented the National Baptist, Dutch Reformed and Armenian Orthodox churches, as well as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the United Church of Christ (UCC). About 60 international students came from countries as distant as India, Uganda, Denmark and Ecuador.

College students on winter break converged on the Albuquerque site from across the country, from the University of California to Ohio State University and Cornell University in New York. There were spirited worship services with thunderous music from around the globe, Bible studies and keynote speakers, workshops, creative caucuses, denominational gatherings and cross-denominational small-group sessions.

"This is the first time I've spent time with (people of) different denominations, especially Catholics," said Ethan Boehm, a 19-year-old freshman at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. "And we've had open dialogue in our small groups about the differences. It's really cool to see what other people believe."

Candid about differences

In keeping with the event's theme, a colorful tapestry of overlapping crosses, symbolic of Christians woven as one in Christ, hung above the auditorium stage.

If Christians are to be truly unified, they must be more candid about their differences, said Bishop Wendell Gibbs of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, who spoke during opening worship. "If Jesus and the Father were not honest with one another, they couldn't have been one," Gibbs said. "If you and I aren't honest with each other, we can't be one. Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I love each and every one of you. There may be some things I may not like, but I love you."

A mariachi band played traditional Mexican music during a New Year's Eve banquet, and Native American dancers performed during the event, which also was attended by ministerial students, graduate students, professors, campus ministers and chaplains. The first-night worship service reflected the culture of the conference venue, featuring Native American chants and drumming and a prayer from Bernard Duran, a member of the Picuris Pueblo tribe of New Mexico. "Let's all pray for the new year 2003 coming up," said Duran, who was accompanied by the drum group Southern Mix, which has members from several Native American tribes. "I hope ... we do not have to go to war."

Petition against war

Avoiding war was on the minds of one group of students that collected signatures on a petition opposing a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. About 200 participants also attended a brief outdoor candlelight vigil featuring prayers for peace and songs of hope.

Terrorism and globalization were topics of a "Global Voices" session sponsored by the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). "The Arab-Israeli conflict remains a bleeding spot in the conscience of Christians all over the world," said Elias El-Halabi, regional secretary for the Middle East for the WSCF, an ecumenical student organization. "Our God is a just God. Palestinians are not children of a lesser God."

Keynote speaker Millard Fuller, a founder and president of Habitat for Humanity International, a worldwide Christian housing ministry, urged the students to extend their "spiritual antennas" to discern God's call.

"How do you know in a world of so many needs . . . what it is God wants you to do?" asked Fuller, who told the students that Habitat has so far built 140,000 homes for low-income families in 87 countries.

"God is broadcasting, young folks," said Fuller, who was raised in the Congregational Christian Church, now part of the UCC, but is now a Baptist. "If you will extend your spiritual antennas, God will reveal to you your unique ministry, and what it is that God wants you to do."

Fuller fired up the crowd by singling out denominations. "Got any Catholics, here?" he shouted. "I wonder if any Lutherans are here? ... How about United Methodists?" Each delegation obliged with a roar, and he went on: "What other groups do we have here?" "Presbyterians!" several people shouted. "Presbyterians! I knew there were a lot of Presbyterians ... and I'm so overdressed," said Fuller, who was wearing a coat and tie. "I dressed up for the Presbyterians today. I have this Presbyterian look."

"We live in a pluralistic society," said Fr. Andrew-Carl Wisdom of the Dominican Religious Order of Preachers in Chicago. "There's tremendous diversity, and if we're going to break down the barriers that often divide us ... we have to come to know each other."

By Albert H. Lee
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