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Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations

Ecumenical News - December 2017


Ecumenical News - December 2017


Ecumenism as an incubator

Rev. Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo

On a warm summer night this past July, I entered a United Methodist congregation about fifteen miles from my home in Albany, New York. I was there for public testimony, a Truth Commission on Poverty, organized by the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, a nonprofit on whose board of directors I sit. After a simple meal, we walked across the hall into the sanctuary and sat down in the pews. At the front of the middle aisle, a small table and two chairs sat. In front of them, before the steps leading up to the chancel, sat a single, long row of tables with ten chairs behind them. Whoever sat at the small table would face those sitting at the larger, long table.

That night, everyone had a role to play. Of those sitting in the pews, we were there to listen, to pray, and to hold the sacred space. If you got up to sit at the small table, you had 5–7 minutes to give your testimony about how poverty has impacted your life and your family. If you sat behind the long table up front, you were a commissioner, there to take notes and contribute to a larger report on the state of poverty in New York State.

This night was one of a few meetings held around the State of New York over the summer. Hours of testimony were taken, and videos were made of each one. Together they have been compiled into a report titled, “Truth Commission on Poverty in New York State.” It can be viewed online at: This work was undertaken by the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, the Kairos Center, and the Poor People’s Campaign (along with many other partners). The work was intersectional, interfaith, and inclusive beyond the faith-based community.

Truth Commssion on Poverty at a local United Methodist congregation in Albany, New York

Photo Credit: Labor-Religion Coalition

One of the questions that faces us today in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is, “what are the best ways to tackle the challenges of poverty we see in front of us?” Our Co-Moderators have issued a call for all Presbyterians to be involved in the new Poor People’s Campaign and to shake off the dust of interior institutional worry, to tether ourselves as people of faith to the needs of the communities we live in, and to be about the transformation of the world to which God calls us. One of the most important pieces of the work of advocacy is the why and the who. Why are we engaged in advocacy around poverty? What is our theological and scriptural foundation? What is going on in our local community? Who are our neighbors, the ones we see and the ones we do not see? Whose truth and personhood is centered? What is trying to keep the status quo or worse yet, the destruction and deterioration of the communities for which we have been charged to care? Everyone could put together a Truth Commission on Poverty in their local community to get at these questions.

The night I attended, there was testimony from a single mom with a few kids who was living alone after domestic abuse. Two Catholic social workers came forward to talk about how hard it is to do the job they feel called to do while at the same time not creating additional harm to their clients. A couple in their early 50s testified how they lost their life savings and solid middle-class life to the effects of their only son’s severe mental illness that landed him in jail, then solitary confinement, where he committed suicide. A man wept when talking about the fear and overwhelming stress he lives with every day that he might lose his medical insurance and what it would do to his family.

Holding space, I sat in the pew and took some notes, cried on and off, sang spirituals at the end, and then huddled in the aisle with some colleagues and friends and shed a few more tears. It is hard, deep, spiritual work to sit and hold space while others who are long-silenced and long-ignored step forward to tell their truth. While we know that our society intends to break and destroy as many lives and communities as possible with the politics of neoliberal economics, it is another thing to sit for two hours and to listen. To track back in your own mind where stories intersect with your own and to wander around in prayer and conversation with God. But that is sacred work, and it is the work that fuels faithful activism.

The present-future of faith-based advocacy and activism is intersectional and it is interfaith. This Truth Commission brought together members of the faith community and the labor community. The commissioners who listened were from around our state and represented multiple constituencies and faith communities. Beloved community isn’t just Presbyterian, but it is all the colors of the family of God. We do not just need each other; in today’s environment, we cannot survive without each other. I have come to find in the last few years that my friendships and professional relationships with members of labor unions are also necessary and important parts of this journey. In our local community, these relationships have taken us to years of Moral Mondays at the State House, protecting each other in times of trouble, alignment with migrant farmworkers, and many acts of civil disobedience.

As we lean in as a denomination into the Poor People’s Campaign, I encourage you to take some time to read the report of the New York Truth Commission. Watch the video testimony. Use it in your place of worship. Let it seep into your soul. I have provided some other resources below.

Jesus is always inviting us to bold and prophetic action. The question is, will we answer the call? Can we let go of the inward orientation to scarcity and move to the outward orientation of abundance and faithful resistance?


Truth Commission Report, NY State
Poor People’s Campaign
Kairos Center
Labor-Religion Coalition, NY State
Accra Confession
Matthew 25 Overture PC(USA)
Call from the Co-Moderators
Faithful Resistance







The Reverend Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo is a board member of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State. She serves as the general presbyter of the Presbytery of Southern New England, co-moderator of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and an elected member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.



GLOBAL Institute of Theology

By Shawn Harmon
July 2017

This summer I was privileged to study and live in a global Christian community at the World Communion of Reformed Churches’ Global Institute of Theology (GIT) and it was truly a transformative experience.

I initially applied to study at the GIT because of my interest and sense of God’s vocational calling in areas of ecumenism and global mission. In addition, I hoped to connect and form lasting relationships with young Reformed ecumenical leaders from around the world and better grasp how the Reformed tradition is witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world. By the grace of God, my hopes and expectations were greatly exceeded.

I was joined by forty other young Reformed seminarians, theologians, and/or pastors at a Protestant school of theology in Wuppertal, Germany, which includes the area of Barmen where the “confessing Church” signed The Theological Declaration of Barmen in 1934 to declare their allegiance to Jesus Christ in opposition to the “German Christians” that stood with Hitler.

Our theological study included topics such as: care for creation as mission; places of revelation from the perspective of Reformed, feminist, and liberation theologians; the different theories and effects of secularization; mission that does not simply think of how we can help marginal groups, but how their experience and perspective is vitally important to seek participation in God’s redemptive work in the world; diasporic/immigrant communities and the Church; and the context and message of three Reformed confessions, namely The Theological Declaration of Barmen, Confession of Belhar, and Accra Confession (a Reformed confession focusing on the neoliberal market and its connection with the exploitation of the earth and the poor that is in opposition to God’s sovereignty and restorative work and covenant with all of creation).

The academic atmosphere of the GIT allowed us to share our theological perspectives and to put those in conversation with the challenges and Christian witness in our unique contexts as well as the international context. This made for fruitful discussion, wide ranging theological and contextual reflections, and new global and ecumenical perspectives.

The GIT was a unique opportunity to grow my theological voice as well as challenge and learn from others. However, it was not only the study that represented the unity in diversity we share in Christ, but the relationships we started and grew among the students, professors, local pastors, and church members of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (Protestant Church of Germany).

The GIT community allowed us to cultivate God’s gracious gift of friendship and shared experiences, theological and social understanding, support and determination to participate in God’s redeeming and reconciling work in the world that reflect the WCRC’s focus on our call to communion and commitment to justice.

After three weeks in Wuppertal, the GIT headed across Germany to participate in the WCRC’s General Council in Leipzig, Berlin, and Wittenberg. There was representation of churches, speakers, clergy, and lay believers from all around the world that made for challenging, yet extraordinary discussion and learning opportunities. Members of the WCRC reflected on, debated, voted, and witnessed to the General Council’s theme of Living God, Renew and Transform Us (Rom.` 12:1–2) in various ways.

Highlights included: speeches by Jürgen Moltmann and the president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeir, who is Reformed himself; worship in six languages in the Berlin Cathedral; a prayer for peaceful reconciliation led by North and South Korean Reformed delegates; a visit to J.S. Bach’s church; and the election of an outstanding new president, Najla Kassab, a female pastor from the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon.

In addition, the WCRC participated in a large-scale display of Christian unity by the signing and association with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) with Lutherans, Catholics, and Methodists. A new addition to the JDDJ included the Reformed emphasis on the relationship between justification and justice, which highlights that the sovereign God both declares righteous and sets right all the earth and that although that work is only fulfilled by God, we are called to participate in this restoration of creation as those declared righteous in Christ.

Overall, the experience left me with many lasting friendships, with a stronger commitment to work ecumenically on a wider stage both globally and in the U.S., and with a greater understanding of how the Holy Spirit is working in the Church and world.

However, it also left me with many questions as well: What does a reformation look like today? How can the PC(USA) remain committed to Reformed emphases such as the authority of God’s word, the priesthood of all believers, and God’s sovereignty driving us to bring God glory in doctrine and mission (both evangelism and justice)? Where is God calling us to be reconciled and develop ecumenical relations in our local contexts, including with churches we feel antagonism towards? How is our country negatively affecting the economic and ecological realms of our world and what is a faithful response to these realities? And how can the churches in the global North and West continue to learn from the majority of the world’s Christians who live in the global South and East?

What the GIT has taught me is that global ecumenism doesn’t guarantee easy answers to any of these contextual and global questions, but it surely affirms the importance of hearing God’s voice anew from many nations and Christian traditions, otherwise it becomes all too easy for us to fall into the idolatry of simply creating God primarily in our culture or denomination’s image, leaving us surrounded by similar voices and experiences of God that can keep us from following the call of the Living Lord.

Shawn Harmon, Lake Park, Iowa. Student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Discerning a career in ecumenical and pastoral ministry and Christian community development in Europe or urban settings in the United States.

If you are interested in being a part of one of our ecumenical opportunities for young adults, please contact Mary Gene Boteler, Interim Coordinator, Ecumenical Networking and Resources, at



Starpoint Reformed youth festival in debrecen, hungary

by Sarah Blair
July 2017

Young Adults at the Starpoint Reformed Youth Festival in Debreen, Hungary

More than 4,000 young adults (ages 18–25) gathered at the Starpoint Reformed Youth Festival in Debrecen, Hungary, this past July to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I had the privilege of representing the PC(USA) and was joined at the festival by thirty international delegates representing other Reformed denominations from Canada, Scotland, England, Germany, Lithuania, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, and Syria.

Each day included devotions, worship, keynote speakers, small groups, community building, and cultural experiences. Together with thousands of Hungarians, we grew and learned about what it means to be reformed.

The gathering discussed the important difference between three words: evolution, revolution, and reformation. Evolution is the process of constantly getting better; the new version is always improving on what was in the past (take the iPhone, for example). Revolution is completely throwing away what existed previously and creating something new in its place. Reformation, however, is acknowledging that the original version of something was ideal or perfect and the process of reforming is trying to get back to that state.

In a Christian context, this means returning to life as it was in the Garden of Eden. We talked in small groups about what made the Garden of Eden perfect: (1) people were in close relationship with God, (2) all beings were in harmony with one another, and (3) all needs were met. The world today is quite the opposite: our relationships with God are broken, humans are in constant conflict, and many people around the world suffer in need.

Thinking about reformation in our world today led to conversations about the current refugee crisis.

I had the opportunity this past school year to work with refugees in California near my university and listen to their stories. After spending time with refugees in the United States, it was fascinating to hear the opinions of my new European and Syrian friends for whom the issue is so much more immediate.

It is easy for us as Americans to sit back and discuss the pros and cons of allowing refugees into our country, most of us never having even met a refugee. However, for our friends in Europe it is not a question of whether they will let refugees in, but how to handle the constant influx of people and serve those entering their communities.

Those three ideals from the Garden of Eden are certainly relevant to the refugee crisis. The needs of refugees are not being met as they struggle to find sufficient jobs, housing, and other basic requirements for life. The conflict of war is what causes many refugees to flee their homes in the first place. Then on the receiving end, people are in constant disagreement about whether or not to accept refugees and, if so, how best to deal with their situations.

The issue is so politicized and polarized (like most other problems facing our world today) that we often get caught up in the details and forget our responsibility as Christians. Pretending we can make sound decisions and arguments without considering how we are made to be loving servants causes us to further break our relationships with God.

Amazingly, amidst a tense political climate, this gathering of thousands of young adults created a wonderful atmosphere of hope. Within the international group, we had many chances to discuss difficult topics, such as women in leadership in the church and the refugee crisis, and it was refreshing to hear that many of us came from church communities that were generally welcoming and accepting.

We crossed political, cultural, and language boundaries to form tight friendships in only a week. I feel like the loving and supportive bonds that were built in such a short amount of time with that group are an example of the harmony that can be reached between fellow human beings once we see them as our neighbors.

We realized throughout the week that the closer we helped each other get to God, the closer we were to each other. And the tighter the bonds are between God and fellow humans, the stronger we are as a whole and more capable of reform.

As participants, we were invigorated by the overall message of the festival, which proclaimed young people can be change makers. Young adults have the power inside them to fuel reformation.

Given a spark from our experience as participants in the Starpoint Reformed Youth Festival, we have come back to our home countries and churches ready to light a fire of love and hope and accelerate the process of reformation. By growing closer to God, we will be bonded to each other and more capable of achieving the three ideals of Eden:

we will be in close relationship with God,

in harmony with one another,

and live in abundance.

Sarah Blair is very grateful for this opportunity provided through the support of her home congregation (Valley Community Presbyterian Church, Portland, Oregon) and the PC(USA). She is an ordained elder and is currently a sophomore at Santa Clara University where she works as the campus ministry intern for Christian Diversity, serves as president of her residential community council, and is majoring in Spanish and Neuroscience.

If you are interested in being a part of one of our ecumenical opportunities for young adult, please contact Mary Gene Boteler, Interim Coordinator, Ecumenical Networking and Resources, at



A view of the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches through the eyes of a Steward

By Daniel Barr

Group Photo of attendees to the WCRC gathering of stewards.

Photo Credit: World Communion of Reformed Churches

About a year ago, the pastor at College Drive Presbyterian Church in New Concord, Ohio, told me about an opportunity to serve as a steward for the gathering of the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Leipzig, Germany. I applied and was selected as one of seventy stewards from around the world. It was life-shaping experience.

The stewards carried out a variety of jobs. We set up the conference center, greeted the delegates and visitors, checked each arrival into the conference, handed out translation headsets, and printed papers. (LOTS of papers.)

It didn’t stop there. We sang and played in worship, assisted the discernment groups, made sure that delegates reached their intended destinations, worked in IT, translated conversations and addresses, delivered important documents, and provided the very backbone for the gathering.

Like the delegates, the stewards were a diverse group of young people. As one of only three North American stewards and as a white male, being in the minority is unusual but it was not an unwelcomed experience. I learned a great deal from new friends from Kenya, Indonesia, Hungry, South Korea, Switzerland, Brazil, Germany, and a host of other countries.

My main steward job was working in the printing room. We printed almost all of the documents that were needed for the gathering. My best guess is that we printed around 50,000 sheets of paper during the conference.

I shared the printing duties with another steward from the PC(USA), as well as stewards from Romania, Lebanon, and Syria. When the copiers were quiet, we had a chance to talk about our backgrounds and to discuss our religious experiences. It was inspiring to hear about my colleagues’ hopes and dreams for the future and to be provided a safe space to share my own. Although our circumstances were unique, there were striking similarities when it came to family, love, and the future we envisioned for our world.

The work of a steward is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. The days were long, the work was repetitive at times, and, to be honest, not all delegates were easy to get along with. I guess that pretty much describes every church community.

However, none of the stewards buckled under the pressure. We built a strong community of support among the stewards and the staff working with us. When stuff went wrong, which is bound to happen, there was always a fellow steward willing to provide a helping hand and pick up the pieces.

The stewards were so busy working behind the scenes that we rarely had the opportunity to witness the actual work of discernment taking place. However, what I did see and hear was quite remarkable. Attending the Wittenberg Witness service was amazing. Seeing representatives from the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and the entire Reformed family worshipping together was a healing and hopeful experience. In that moment, I felt that the Great Schism was beginning to heal. The Christian community may never agree on everything, but I pray that the Wittenberg Witness can serve as a forum for further discussion and works of unity in the church.

I am grateful to my pastor, the Reverend Anne Weirch, who presented this opportunity to me. I am thankful for the entire PC(USA) family who funded this trip out of a desire to foster an ecumenical spirit among its young adults. My deepest hope is that there are other pastors who are alert to the ecumenical opportunities available to young adults and who can serve as the catalyst for creating experiences like mine in Leipzig.

Daniel Barr is a graduate at Muskingum University and is working at St. Paul’s Opunake Church in New Zealand.  If you are interested in being a part of one of our ecumenical opportunities, please contact Mary Gene Boteler, Interim Coordinator, Ecumenical Networking and Resources, at



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