Saturday, February 26, 2005

Young Adult Stewards See God's Presence in Ecumenism
By Walt Wiltschek

In an age when many studies suggest younger generations are showing less interest in denominational affiliations and church institutions, a group of 27 young adults spent more than two weeks immersed in the work of one of the world's largest ecumenical bodies, the World Council of Churches (WCC).

They came to Geneva to serve as stewards for the WCC central committee meeting after being selected through an application process. The stewards engaged in a week of training and group-building, then assisted with a variety of meeting duties: delivering messages, monitoring the meeting room, running a video camera, and much, much more.

Why? The reasons vary. This was a diverse group, hailing from 20 countries in literally every part of the globe. The one thing they share is an interest in Christ at work in the church - the whole church. Each has a story that brought them to this place; here are four of them:

Sarah Kwon, South Korea

Sarah was drawn to Geneva by the same concept that draws many young people to do any number of things: it was an opportunity to do something new.

She is majoring in industrial design at a Korean university, and her father - a minister - suggested she do something special during the vacation between terms at the school. He surfed the Internet and found on the WCC website a call for stewards at an upcoming meeting.

"He thought, 'Why not sign up for that?,' and I thought it was a good idea," Sarah says.

She says not many people from her part of the world are selected, because good skills in English (the main working language of the WCC meeting) are required. That wasn't a problem for Sarah, though, because she had studied the language in the United States and spoke fluently.

So, the application went in.

"My personality is open to new environments and new people," Sarah says. "I wanted to get to know other people as well as to volunteer at such a great place and well known event. It was an opportunity to actually get to know something from experience rather than reading about it from an article. I wanted to give it a try."

She paid all her own expenses to come, and says it proved worthwhile.

The pre-meeting week of training with the other stewards was "something you would never get to experience anywhere else," she says. "Everyone, though from different denominations, had the same idea for coming here - it was to serve God. That was the main point that kept us together, no matter what tradition or denomination we came from."

Her hope now is that other Asians will learn about the stewards programme and will apply and be selected. She expects they would enjoy doing something completely new, too.

Antti Siukonen, Finland

Antti lives and breathes ecumenism.

He is a fifth-year student at the state university in Helsinki, studying theology and focusing on ecumenical studies. He has participated in an ecumenical training programme organized by the Ecumenical Council of Finland. And he works at the Helsinki Cathedral of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, with plans to be ordained in a few years.

Two years ago, he attended a New Year's gathering sponsored by the Taizé community in France, with about 60,000 young adults attending. Antti says that that event had a powerful effect on him.

"I know people from many churches, and I notice we're not that different even though we have many ways of expressing our faith," he says. "Ecumenism is a natural response. As Christians, how can we be convincing in front of people of our own church and people who are not Christians if we are not all one, or at least striving to be one?"

He received information on the WCC stewards programme through a mailing list, and he didn't have to think twice about applying. He contacted his church's head office, got a recommendation letter from his bishop, and soon was making plans to go to Geneva.

After arriving, it was everything he had hoped. He says he enjoyed the training week before the central committee meeting, when stewards learned to know each other better and studied key issues before the WCC.

"We had a miniature ecumenical setting, reflecting the same traits as the WCC," he says. "We have experienced many differences in life, different traditions, different expressions. We noticed that we may not agree on all things, but we can still be together and try to understand each other."

He was encouraged by WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia's address to central committee, when Kobia said that young people are not just the church's future, but the present. "We need youth participating in decision-making," Antti says.

The stewards underscored that point in their sharing with central committee, a message Antti helped to craft. Saying, "God, in your grace, LET YOUTH transform the world" - a play on next year's WCC assembly theme - many of the stewards shared a few sentences of their vision for the WCC.

"We came together with our opinions and found a common statement," Antti says. "It was a great opportunity to learn how to respect one another and tolerate our differences."

Becky Machnee, Canada

Why? It's a question Becky regularly likes to ask.

"I'm a very curious person," Becky says. "I like to understand people and why they think differently than I do."

She has had ample opportunity to explore, as she herself has a diverse background: her father was a Baptist minister, but her family later joined the Evangelical Orthodox Church, then converted to the Orthodox Church in America when she was 9. She went to a Pentecostal school, a Catholic high school, and attended a Protestant youth group. She says faith and church were always very important to her family.

Now, when not busy completing a business degree in Edmonton, Becky has become heavily involved in her church's youth work. She serves as Canadian representative to the youth desk at the Orthodox Church of America's headquarters in New York, and is working with the Canadian Council of Churches to plan a 2006 ecumenical youth festival in Toronto.

She has a long-standing interest in foreign affairs as well, and thought she might one day work in that area for the Canadian government. "I was unaware the church had similar (global) organizations," she says. But when a staff member from the Orthodox Church told her about ecumenical organizations beyond North America, her interest grew.

Two days before the WCC stewards programme application was due, that staff member sent an e-mail encouraging her to apply. After a "flurry of activity," her application was sent.

"I'm amazed sometimes how opportunities arise," she says. "I feel a calling, though sometimes the goal of the calling isn't very clear. I think if I were allowed, I'd become a priest. But doors keep opening, so I figure I'm going on the right way. It's leading somewhere."

Once at the meeting, Becky says her biggest surprise was the attention the WCC gives to social justice issues rather than a sole focus on theology.

"I somehow never connected the two," she says. "All of a sudden there's this whole other area that's very important."

She hopes to carry that message back with her to Canada. Each steward is to do a project related to ecumenism when he or she returns home, and Becky says she would like to implement a "Changemakers" programme she learned about through the Church of Norway. That programme seeks to address inequalities between the global North and South, issues she says many Canadians don't fully understand.

She's glad to leave Geneva with new areas of curiosity.

"Overall, it's been fantastic," she says. "It's been a real learning experience."

Penias Mulauzi, Zambia

Life has not always been easy for Penias, but it’s a journey he has travelled with faith.

Both of his parents died while he was growing up, but in those times when he felt alone, “I found God," he says. Through several years of struggles and raising funds, Penias was able to complete school through grade 12 and was head boy there his final year. Still, he is currently unemployed, like many other youth in his nation.

He finds opportunities, though, to volunteer for the Council of Churches in Zambia, helping however he can. It's part of a passion he has "for working for the expansion of God's kingdom".

Through that work, he became aware of the WCC, and on the WCC website he saw an ad seeking stewards. He applied for both the central committee meeting and the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, and was selected for the former.

"I know I have a lot of potential," he says, "but I need a bit of exposure to get myself involved."

In Geneva, he found an abundance of opportunities. Penias, a Presbyterian, was among those who shared during the stewards' presentation to central committee, and he says he received much affirmation for his presentation. He has learned more about the global context of some issues affecting his country and continent, like HIV/AIDS - issues that the church often struggles to know how to respond to.

He has made friends from all over the world, too. And he says it has been valuable "to see all the churches working as one" in this setting.

Those experiences have inspired him to make a difference when he returns to Zambia. He says he wants to help some of those unemployed young people by organizing ecumenical training programmes to teach them skills in project management and other areas. That, he hopes, would give them a healthy alternative to some of the destructive activities, like alcohol and drugs, to which they otherwise often turn.

"This whole experience has brought out in me a part I did not know I possessed," he says of his time in Geneva. "My prayer is that one day God will answer my call to involve me in more than the stewards' programme."

"It's been a life-changing experience," he adds. "It's just been good." [1753 words]

Walt Wiltschek is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren (USA) and editor of the churches' monthly magazine "Messenger".

Additional information on the WCC youth programme at

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