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Assembly initiates pilgrimage for justice, peace

The 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches offered a myriad of opportunities to engage nearly 3,000 official participants and more than 1,000 guests from Korea and around the globe.

Set in Busan, South Korea, organizers and hosts from Korean churches introduced participants to their life, issues and culture.

Business sessions used consensus decision-making on resolutions about issues, program guidelines, priorities and policies for the WCC’s future.

Korean choir wcc assembly
A mostly Korean choir introduced new songs during assembly worship services.

Along with electing eight new presidents and a 150-member Central Committee, delegates elected the first woman and the first African as moderator, Agnes Aboun, an Anglican from Nairobi, Kenya. A development consultant serving Kenyan and international organizations, she coordinates social action programs for religious and civil life across Africa.

What was the message?

The 2013 assembly’s message—“we intend to move together”—was adopted with an invitation for churches to join a pilgrimage of justice and peace.  It echoes the first assembly’s message in 1948, “We intend to stay together.”

Recognizing global crises in economic, ecological, socio-political and spiritual challenges, the assembly called “people of goodwill to engage their God-given gifts in transforming actions” and churches “to be communities of healing and compassion,” seeding “the Good News, so justice will grow and God’s peace will rest on the world.”

By listening to voices from the margins, the message calls for sharing “lessons of hope and perseverance” and for recommitting to liberation and solidarity.

Beyond the decisions and messages, participants learned about work the WCC has done as they helped frame its work in the future.

WCC business plenary
Delegates make decisions on issues by consensus.

Who participated?

More than 800 delegates from member churches and outgoing Central Committee members represented more than 90 percent of the WCCs’ 345 member churches in 140 countries.

There were also 575 representatives from ecumenical partners, other churches, observers and guests; more than 1,000 assembly participants; more than 1,000 Korean hosts, staff, volunteers and day participants; 200 staff, stewards and interpreters; 250 media representatives, and 180 students and faculty involved in the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute.

More than 700 youth attended.

What happened?

Prior to the assembly beginning Oct. 30, there were two days of pre-assembly gatherings for a community of women and men, for youth under 30, for indigenous people, for the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network and for ecumenical partner meetings. 

Youth worship stewards
Youth led worship processions.

Morning programs explored elements of the theme, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace,” the multi-faith context of Asia, the WCC’s new mission statement, “Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,” and church unity.

Morning and evening worship services introduced new songs in languages from around the world, but English was the official language for business sessions and documents.

 The documents were translated into Korean, French, German and Spanish, and simultaneous translation was provided. 

The assembly included 20 Bible studies in language groups; 21 ecumenical conversations on issues of faith, life, peace and justice; 81 workshops; 80 side events, including dialogue, music, dance and activities; 88 exhibition booths with resources on WCC, Korean and partner organization programs, and 18 options for weekend excursions to visit ministries and learn about issues of concern for the Korean churches.

The assembly used the Korean term, “madang,” for events involving the exchange of ideas and experiences.

“Madang” is a courtyard in a traditional Korean home, a space for encounter, sharing, celebration, fellowship, greeting visitors and welcoming strangers. 

Informal encounters in hallways of the convention center, on the busses, over meals, at the hotels and in other settings were in as many languages as the participants spoke.

Videos of plenary sessions and prayers are online at wcc2013.info/en.  They were made so people around the world could participate in the assembly through live streaming. 

Documents and news releases are also online.

Korean + Ghana women
Korean and Ghanan women meet.

Why is it important?

Gathering in person for worship, education, encounter and business builds ecumenical relationships beyond the assemblies. 

The assemblies have been held once every seven to eight years—1948 in Amsterdam; 1954 in Evanston, Ill.; 1961 in New Delhi, India; 1968 in Uppsala, Sweden; 1975 in Nairobi, Kenya; 1983 in Vancouver, B.C.; 1991 in Canberra, Australia; 1998 in Harare, Zimbabwe, and 2006 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. 

In gathering face-to-face, people build trust and understanding as they reaffirm their commitment as member churches and ecumenical partners to pray together as they search for church unity as a diverse fellowship. 

The gathering reflected on current local to global realities in light of the assembly theme.   

What issues were addressed?

Delegates adopted statements on such public issues as the politicization of religion and the rights of religious minorities, human rights of stateless people, peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula, the way of just peace, affirming the Christian presence and witness in the Middle East, and border disputes at oil-rich Abyei, South Sudan.

Other issues addressed included calls to support peace-building in the Democratic Republic of Congo; to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015; to improve U.S.-Cuba relations and lift economic sanctions, and to continue to give attention to indigenous people’s issues.

There were more than 130 proposals for actions on issues.  Many were incorporated into documents adopted.  Many others were not included, because they are already part of current WCC programs or previous statements.

Some were referred to the Central Committee, which makes decisions between WCC assemblies.

Asian culture
Asian culture, struggles and lifewere introduced through music, dance and drama.

Who protested this time?

There have been protestors at each assembly.

Outside the conference center, several hundred protestors from the Christian Council of Churches in Korea (CKK) were gathered throughout the assembly to protest the WCC for not having the “right” understanding of Jesus, for being “Communist”—a fear heightened by the location on the Korean peninsula—for respecting people of other faiths or for some member churches inclusion of all people regardless of sexual orientation. 

Participants had to pass by protestors to go to restaurants or to busses. 

Many assembly participants tried to get acquainted, engage in dialogue and pray with some of the protesters.  Most protestors seemed insistent on their perspectives, which they announced by handouts, megaphones, shouting and speeches. 

Even after two protestors broke into the closing worship, causing a disruption as they reached the stage and altar, several from the WCC went to visit them after police took them to jail, to be sure no one was hurt and to express their caring.

After a bomb threat at the Busan Exhibition and Convention Center (Bexco), which hosts 900 conventions a year, police presence was evident throughout the assembly

Organizers were aware there would be protests, as at previous assemblies, but the CCK group, which is not a member of the WCC, was expected to be larger.

Mary Stamp, Corazon Reyes, and Marilyn Lariviere
Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree Editor, with Corazon Reyes of the Philippines, and Marilyn Lariviere, of Hyannis, Mass.

Why was it in South Korea?

Civic and church leaders, however, wanted the assembly in Busan, hoping it would spark a movement for peace on a peninsula divided into two countries by an armistice signed to end fighting of Korean War 60 years ago.  There is still no official peace treaty. 

Korean organizers hoped the assembly would be an opportunity for churches from around the world to stand in solidarity with Korean Christians who seek reconciliation, reunification and peace.

Upcoming issues of The Fig Tree will share more about assembly business, workshops and interviews to give area congregations and faiths insights into “local” issues of churches around the globe.  Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp attended the assembly as a member of the press.

For other stories by Mary Stamp on events and interviews at the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly visit: the national United Church of Christ News