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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Communication is key to the ecumenical movement

By Mary Stamp

Michael Kinnamon
Michael Kinnamon uses The Fig Tree in a course on ecumenism at Seattle University.

The Fig Tree is distinct among ecumenical entities in that it pursues its “ecumenical” mission through a focus on communication, said Michael Kinnamon, featured speaker for The Fig Tree’s 30th anniversary dinner on April 30.

Its purpose “to break through divisions among people to promote unity and action for the common good, and to support ecumenical, interfaith and community efforts by connecting people, building understanding, opening dialogue and sharing stories.  Sounds ecumenical to me!” he said 

Recognizing The Fig Tree’s 30 years, he reflected on the ecumenical movement as a movement of communication.

“If the point of the ecumenical movement is to break down walls between formerly-competing churches through dialogue that enables them to see each other’s gifts, if its goal is to foster genuine community through sharing information and experience, and if its intent is to move us to act together on behalf of others by giving them a human face, then surely it is fair to say that ecumenism is a movement of communication,” he said. 

“I am thankful to God that The Fig Tree is an important part of it,” Michael concluded.

With colleague, Michael Trice, at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, he taught a winter-quarter course on “Theology in an Ecumenical Context.” They assigned documents of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches last November in Busan, South Korea.  While they were excited about the new texts, the students were not.

“We sensed a waning enthusiasm for the idea of Christian unity,” Michael said. “The difficulty seemed to be in conveying the humanity behind the documents.”

A report from the WCC’s 2001-11 Decade to Overcome Violence,  “An Ecumenical Call to Just Peace,” discussed how churches might help reduce violence.

The professors knew several people who helped draft the report—a Rwandan pastor who saw his community butchered in 1994, a Sierra Leone pastor who told of children whose arms were chopped off during the brutal conflict in his country, and a Sri Lankan church leader who had experienced horrifying violence during 25 years of civil war. 

“We were taken aback when some students dismissed the report as “waffly,” even “hypocritical,” because it said—clearly through gritted teeth—that “there are extreme circumstances where, as the last resort and the lesser evil, the lawful use of armed force may become necessary to protect vulnerable groups of people exposed to imminent lethal threats.” 

“The words on the page did not convey the human drama and struggle behind them,” Michael said.

Without dropping the readings, the professors told stories that put a human face on the ecumenical movement. 

Michael told of living in Midway, Ky., a community of 1,200 with 10 Protestant churches: two Methodist (one black and one white), two Baptist (one black and one white), and two Disciples (one a former slave church and the other mostly white).  Members of his predominantly-white Disciples church had never set foot inside St. Matthew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, 100 feet from its back door. 

“The biggest fissure in American Christianity is not from the legacy of the Reformation but division inherited from the legacy of slavery,” Michael said.

He told of a Kenyan friend, Jesse Mugambe, whose jaw clenched whenever he described how the British assigned denominations to evangelize different parts of the East African colony so Christian rivalry would keep “natives” from uniting in political opposition—a pattern repeated globally. 

Michael also told of his experience at the WCC’s assembly in Harare in 1998, a year before Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.  Some Pentecostal friends invited him to worship at one of the African Instituted Churches, non-denominational, usually Pentecostal fellowships. 

“We crammed in two taxis and headed for the edge of the city where Christians, dressed in white, were worshipping under trees,” he said.  “We approached a group and asked if we could worship with them.  “Of course,” they replied, “and one of you can bring a testimony.”  One of his friends volunteered Michael. 

“So there I was, preaching on the work of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts, while around me, African Christians knelt on the grass, hands raised, speaking in tongues or the Shona language. 

“I was overcome with the conviction that this was part of my family,” he said.  “This experience has shaped my ministry, contributing to my involvement in the Jubilee 2000 campaign to obtain debt relief for African sisters and brothers.”

He also told of a 1960s dialogue sermon by the U.S. Presbyterian ecumenical leader, Eugene Carson Blake, and the German church leader and Nazi resister, Martin Niemöller, who was a German U-Boat officer in World War I. 

Blake, who had learned to hate Germany and the “new barbarism” symbolized by U-Boat warfare, realized that if he had been older, the two would have been in the position to kill one another.  What made the sermon possible? 

The ecumenical movement so transformed his understanding that Blake said he was “more interested to hear what this German Lutheran will say...than to hear almost any other preacher in the world.”

Once we began to tell stories of real individuals in the wider church, students started to share their own experiences of why church unity matters,” Michael said.

• “My sister is married to a Catholic and couldn’t take communion with him, even at his mother’s funeral.” 

• “My Southern Baptist family said I left the family when I joined the United Church of Christ.  The religious split keeps them from spending time with their grandchildren.” 

• “An ecumenical Thanksgiving service we hosted last November was a highlight of the year for our congregation.”

During the last session of the course, the professors read aloud from three recent issues of The Fig Tree. 

A December article from the WCC assembly reported how telling stories of violence against women—in India, Zimbabwe, Great Britain, Uganda, Nigeria, Thailand, Indonesia, the Congo—helps begin the process of healing and prevention. 

A January article on the assembly covered speakers from Pacific islands who call for ecumenical solidarity to resist militarization of their region. 

From March, they read that the Rev. C.W. Andrews and his wife, Doris, celebrating 40 years of ministry at Calvary Baptist, urge people to respect one another despite differences and, in his words, “not to get bent out of shape over nothing.” 

They quoted an article on the installation of the Rev. Roberta Wilburn as president of the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship.  Its motto is “dwelling together in unity.”  When people are one, she said, “nothing can be withheld because each brings different talents to share to bless the city.” 

“Sounds pretty ecumenical to me!  It is putting a human face on the movement,” said Michael.

He considers The Fig Tree’s work particularly important, given the state of communications in this society. 

“Communications media should promote healthy, vital community,” he said. 

The 1968 WCC assembly spoke of media as providing “the bone structure of a responsible world society” because potentially “media enable us quickly to know about the suffering of others and, thus, to grow in awareness and compassion.” 

Michael said that “communal bonds are formed when people learn about others as individuals and about the complexities of our environment.  Civic engagement is encouraged when, through the media, the nation’s attention is directed to issues of consequence.  True investigative reporting builds up community through the revelation of matters that, if kept hidden, unravel the fabric of our common life.”

Today’s 24-hour news coverage, cultivates a taste for sound bites and celebrity gossip that eclipse stories that need in-depth attention, Michael said.   The internet gives unprecedented access to information, but also gives what a colleague calls a “smorgasbord of dubious pundits,” catering to political prejudices of a segment of the population, undercutting community. 

In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote of “the viral, often venomous, world of the internet, Twitter, and cable news, where fake rage is the rage all the time,” and of the “Murdochization of the news, where a network slants its perspective because it sells and sells big.”

As general secretary of the National Council of Churches, Michael was frustrated that media tended to write about religion when it was controversial—involving conflict or broken community. 

In the 2008 frenzy over President Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, Michael was at a news conference at Wright’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where the Rev. Otis Moss, the Rev. John Thomas and Michael called for “a sacred conversation on race” to help heal wounds caused by the nation’s racist heritage.”

“Guess how much coverage that got compared to Wright and his occasionally divisive rhetoric!” he said.

In August 2010, a troubled pastor of a tiny, fringe Gainesville, Fla., congregation gained too much media attention when he announced he was going to burn 200 Qur’ans on the anniversary of 9-11.  The NCC heard from colleagues in Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia, where extremists were using this “news” as a pretext for violence against local Christians. 

“The way stories are covered has consequences,” said Michael, whose interviews with such international networks as Al Jazeera, tried to put a different face on U.S. Christianity.

That is why we need The Fig Tree. We need serious, faith-based or faith-sensitive communication that can help us learn about other perspectives and experiences to help us see others as individuals, not stereotypes, and to lift up religion’s ecumenical efforts, not just those that reinforce fragmentation,” he said.

“When I was at the NCC, it had five commissions: Faith and Order, Justice and Advocacy, Interfaith Relations, Education–and Communications.  Some on the NCC Governing Board saw communications as an apple among oranges.  “Isn’t communications,” they asked, “more of a tool than a basic theme of ecumenism?” Michael’s answer was and is an emphatic “No!” 

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Copyright ©June 2014 - The Fig Tree