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by Anne Hopkins

Last December, seven Princeton Seminary students traveled to Harare, Zimbabwe, to attend the World Council of Churches (WCC) Eighth Assembly. For each, this commitment meant working overtime to finish the academic requirements of the fall semester ahead of their peers. This flurry of activity was capped by the long journey to Africa, hyphenated by a thirteen-hour layover in London, where most of them found the verve to spend their time seeing the sights.

The group evolved at the urging of Ana Toledo, a middler who, as an appointee of the United Methodist Church, was attending the conference as a delegate. She saw value in a Seminary presence at the WCC, and at her behest academic dean James Armstrong accepted applications from interested students. Six additional students chose to grab the opportunity; they agreed to divide evenly the funding for three students that the school provided. The balance of their expenses was raised through their individual churches and other sources.

The students were prepared for their experience by a class taught in the fall semester by PTS’s guest professor of ecumenics and mission, Professor Andrew Walls. The class was specifically tailored for and restricted to them. Each was assigned a different topic for a paper to be written about the conference, and this engendered a diversity of viewpoints and benefits.

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WCC group, bottom row (left to right): Bessie Emily
Coleman, Charles Atkins, Janet Busch Gillikin; middle
row (left to right): Chad Mullet-Bauman, Elizabeth
Middleton; top row (left to right): Ana Toledo, Darren
Kennedy.

The observations of these students reflect a similarity of perception, with nuances of difference. For each, it was a rich experience highlighted by the hospitality of their African hosts, which one participant described as “second to none — they welcomed us with open arms and went all out to make sure that we even had the kind of food that we were used to and were sure to like.”

All agreed that it was extremely significant that this, the WCC’s fiftieth anniversary conference, was held in sub-Saharan Africa. The location enabled a strong participation by the African churches who, by dint of poverty, would have been unable to join the group at a more distant place. The setting also focused attention on the marginalization of poverty, and the political issue of the debt crisis in these struggling nations was prominent in the discussions.

One seminarian spoke of the complexity of the monetary inequities; some delegates to the conference were paying half the local annual per capita income for each night in their hotel rooms. He was troubled by the difficulties of being consistent with his Christian convictions, of living in integrity with the Scriptures in the face of such gross disparity. It was, as he said, a complex place to be: “The WCC is something of a corporate statement of Luther’s vision that we are simultaneously justified and sinner.”

Almost everyone at the Assembly spoke English, though there were translators for the major Western European languages. A great effort was made to provide for other languages; but speaking English was a decisive advantage, since the impassioned rhetoric and style that arouses crowds and elicits applause paled in the perfunctory translations.

As is so often the case, the fellowship at mealtime was very special and meaningful to each person who went. There was “glorious interaction” between participants from all cultures and nationalities — a sense of the “miracle that it even happens at all.”

Several students cherished the worship service as the most wondrous memory of all. It was exciting, with four to five thousand people together — all different groups and languages — arranged in concentric circles under a vast tent. “The singing was incredible,” led by different people, from different traditions, voices blending with an African choir robed in native fabric. There was some sadness that conflicting traditions precluded the serving of communion, but “the worship was so moving, it was compensatory. There were moments of extreme exultation, in which you felt you had glimpsed eternity.”

It was a time for healing through listening and through worshipping together. “We saw the efficacy of worship in the healing process, an experience of forgiveness corporately and individually. We were aware that all people are sinners; many people were in tears at many moments.”

The students who shared this experience see their participation as profitable in the dissemination of information, in hearing the diverse perspectives of different cultures and bringing them back, and in processing these insights not in isolation, but in a world context.

For Bessie Coleman, a 1999 graduate whose paper addressed the relevance of the Orthodox churches to the World Council, there was a deeply personal impact. She has turned from her Lutheran orientation to join the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The students recognized Africa as a vibrant and growing center of Christian faith. It presents the new face of Christianity. The balance is shifting, they said; Africa represents the future. Americans have gifts to receive out of Africa.dot.gif (37 bytes)

Anne Hopkins has just completed her second year in the M.Div. program. She is from Charlotte, North Carolina, and hopes to be a pastor.

Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary
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