Ecumenical News, March 30, 2015
By The Rev. Robina M. Winbush
“The action your General Assembly took last year really meant a lot to us” were the words my lunch mate spoke to me upon realizing I was from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It took me a minute. Was he talking about divestment? I don’t think this Orthodox priest was referring to the actions related to same-gender loving couples. I realized that the Very Reverend Aren Jebejian, from the Armenian (Orthodox) Church in America, was referring to the action the 221st General Assembly (2014) took recognizing the 100th anniversary of the genocide of Armenian Christians. Between 1915–1923, approximately 1.5 million Armenians perished under the Ottoman Empire and more than one million were displaced from their homeland in Western Armenian, which is now present-day Turkey.
As we sat and talked during the Christian Churches Together Annual Conference in Houston, Texas, this past February, Fr. Jebejian and I reflected on how our churches stand in solidarity with one another. We didn’t have to agree on everything, but we could genuinely respect the struggles of persecuted peoples.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a long history of working with struggling Armenian communities through the Jinishian Memorial Program (JMP), which operates relief, development, and spiritual missions through interchurch partnerships in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jerusalem, and Armenia.
The historic action of the General Assembly was in response to overtures from the Presbyteries of Chicago, Los Ranchos, and Palisades. The Reverend Dr. Christine Chakoian, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, Illinois, spoke to the assembly of how her own family experienced the decimation of the genocide, and helped the committee understand Armenia’s story:
Armenia was the first Christian country: the first to embrace Christianity, even before the Roman Empire. Our eight-sided churches testify to our baptism and the promise of the resurrection. In the mid-19th century, American missionaries came to Turkey; my family was among those whom the missionaries touched. Since then, education has been a priority—including education for women and girls, far ahead of its time. When I was eight years old, my grandmother told me the story of how her beloved uncles were forced to kneel and were shot in the back of the head. This overture urges us to remember the genocide. But it does more than that. It also testifies to the truth that hope does not die. This overture witnesses to the Christians who are persecuted in the region today that they are not forgotten. (Taylor, Cara. (2014, July 11). “Jinishian Memorial Program Praises PC(USA) Action Commemorating Armenian Genocide,” Retrieved from http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/7/11/pcusa-commemorates-genocide/)
PC(USA) congregations are encouraged to observe the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in worship services on April 26, 2015. For more information and resources about the General Assembly action, visit http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/jinishian/. For congregations in communities with persons of Armenian descent, it becomes an opportunity to hear their stories and together give witness to the liberating and reconciling power of the Gospel.
By The Rev. Robina M. Winbush
“It could have been me,” the Reverend Brandon Smith of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church stated as he introduced himself during the Churches Uniting in Christ “Truth to Power: Eradicating Racism” forum and webcast on March 14thin Dallas, Texas. Smith was reflecting on the recent killings of unarmed young people of color, particularly African American young adults by law enforcement. Young adults from the communions in relationship through CUIC came together to share their stories, engage in dialogue with their elder counterparts, and strategize together a way forward that confronts the racism that continues to plague this nation. Approximately one hundred persons gathered at Christian Chapel Temple of Faith (Christian Methodist Episcopal Church) for the more than three-hour forum and webcast. While the majority of the audience was from the greater Dallas community, panel participants came from across the United States.
The Reverend Waltrina Middleton, who serves as national minister for youth advocacy and leadership development with the United Church of Christ, reported that “young leaders called for the church to present with them in Ferguson and when religious leaders came and stood with them, it allowed young people to see there are members of the faith community who believe in making a prophetic stance.” The need for courageous, prophetic, uncomfortable witness was raised by all the speakers. Middleton also noted, “if the faith community would listen to the rallying cry from our young people, we would be able to live prophetically. It allows us to be unapologetic and unashamed to say that racism exists in the church. It’s not enough to live off of our legacy, we must build upon it. We must dismantle this [racism] by going to the margins and going beyond the walls of the church.”
Several speakers reflected on the church’s role in addressing racism. Dr. Ulysses Burley, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, noted that “the Gospel is the greatest story of non-discrimination and justice ever written. However, too often when we preach from the gospel we don’t preach about justice for everybody. … We’re more concerned with loosing members than we are with liberating those who need help the most.”
During the intergenerational panel, Ms. Felecia Commodore of the African Methodist Episcopal Church shared that even though the racism experienced by her generation might appear different from their parents and grandparents generation, it is nonetheless very real and must be addressed. The Reverend Antonio Redd from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) noted that while previous generations may not have “passed the baton,” this generation must find where they will stand in the quest for justice.
The panel participants focused on strategies for “eradicating racism” and building the beloved community. Ms. Alisha Stoner from the Episcopal Church called for a system of re-education that moved away from “white is right” and change that is dependent upon what had previously been done. She called for engagement in the electoral process at all levels and a system of both putting persons in power and holding them accountable. The Reverend John Huh of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) suggested that safe spaces needed to be created for communities to engage issues of racism and racial ethnic communities must claim their racial ethnic identities as a strength and gift of God. Dr. Burley reminded the gathering that healing of the divisions within the human community is directly related to the healing of the divisions between churches. He noted, while faith is supposed to be a unifying force, churches are often the most divided institutions in the world. The quest for justice and unity begins in our churches, our pulpits, and our pews. We must be willing to build both ecumenical and interfaith coalitions. Several speakers spoke of the need to build partnerships with community activists and young leaders who may not be involved in the church.
The Reverend Staccato Powell, from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, served as moderator of the forum. During his concluding remarks, he charged the gathering to not see this as an event, but a movement. Building on the South African experience with Truth and Reconciliation Commission during the post-apartheid era, Dr. Powell suggested that churches need to lead this country in creating spaces for truth telling, believing that doors of justice and reconciliation will be opened.
Churches Uniting in Christ is a covenant relationship among eleven Christian communions that have pledged to live more closely together in expressing their unity in Christ and combating racism together. The member churches of CUIC include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the International Council of Community Churches, the Moravian Church (Northern Province), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a partner in mission and dialogue.
For general information about Churches Uniting in Christ, go to www.churchesunitinginchrist.org.
To view the webcast you may go to http://new.livestream.com/CHRISTIANCHAPELDFW/events/3885816 and for local news report on the forum you may visit http://www.wfaa.com/story/news/local/dallas-county/2015/03/14/civil-rights-dallas-racism/24775995/.
By The Rev. Christian Berry
Sterling, Illinois? Where is that? It may be the first question you have,– we sound like an out-of-the-way place, where ecumenical work might consist of the Methodists having coffee with the Presbyterians. The reality, though, is that Sterling and Rock Falls, Illinois could be a model of ecumenical cooperation for small towns across the country.
Our first project came in 2011, with a grant from the Calvin Institute for Worship Renewal. Four churches worked together to find new ways of expression in worship through preaching, song, liturgical dance, and visual arts. From that first partnership grew the community Vacation Bible School, which now involves six congregations: Disciples of Christ, Reformed Church in America, Episcopal Church, two Evangelical Lutheran Church in American and PC(USA). This past summer, nearly 100 children and many adults came together for our third community VBS, which concluded with a shared outdoor worship service in which all six congregations gathered for worship and communion. Grace Episcopal Church now has a monthly kids club, which is staffed and supported by volunteers from that congregation and from three other nearby churches.
Last summer, the Presbyterians and the Grace Episcopal partnered to offer a three-week seminar series on end-of-life issues. Meanwhile, at Sterling First United Methodist Church, people from all denominations pitch in to provide a daily breakfast for anyone who comes, and churches in Sterling and Rock Falls contribute to the Rock Falls United Methodist pantry that provides toiletries and paper products for those in need. Ash Wednesday marks the third offering of “Ashes to Go” by the Episcopal and Presbyterian Clergy. The relationships that have been built through our efforts have resulted in two new ministries developing for our communities in 2015 – a weekend food program(involving Nazarenes, Congregationalists, Reformed, Lutheran and Presbyterians) for children who are food insecure, and a respite care adult day center for home caregivers, to be housed at a Lutheran church but supported by various congregations.
In many small towns, there is a spirit of competition for members and ministries. In Sterling and Rock Falls, there is a spirit of cooperation that asks, “What are the needs?” and then explores which of our churches has the gifts, graces and resources to lead in meeting needs, with the support of those who feel called to that ministry. Our ecumenical work may not “put us on the map” with acclaim or fame, but Spirit knows where we are!