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Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations

Ecumenical News, December 4, 2015


Ecumenical News

Advent greeting

By The Rev. Robina M. Winbush,
Associate Stated Clerk and Director of Ecumenical Relations

Advent is a reminder that we live between the promise of the reign of God in Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of that reality on earth as it is in heaven. It is the beginning of the liturgical calendar year and yet it comes at the end of the civil calendar year. This cross section of beginnings and endings speaks to the ecumenical calling of the Church.

In the midst of ecclesiastical brokenness, human brokenness, and brokenness in the created order, we long for and seek the healing and transformation of our relationships. We do this so that we might make visible the wholeness given to us in Jesus the Christ. God has gifted us with unity, yet, we live outside the full realization of this gift.

This issue of Ecumenical News highlights three articles that focus on how Christians are working to receive this gift of unity and use it for the healing of the world. Carlos Malavé shares the vision and work of Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., a relatively new national ecumenical expression. Steve Shussett, a Presbyterian teaching elder serving St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Allentown, writes of his congregation’s and community’s ministry serving people who are most vulnerable. This mission is an opportunity for both ecumenical and interfaith sharing in ways that demonstrate both our unity and our diversity. Derrick McQueen, moderator of the Presbytery of New York City, shares the powerful healing experience of attending the Interfaith Prayer Service at Ground Zero during Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.

May this Advent season call us once again to make visible the gifts and promises of God for a world marked by justice and peace, unity and diversity, and love and liberation. May the celebration of the incarnation of God in human flesh remind us of the power that has been given to us through Jesus the Christ. May the new year find us living what we pray, that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.


Among the Witnesses: The Visit of the Pope in NYC

By Rev. Derrick McQueen
Moderator, Presbytery of New York City

There are certain times in life when one is reminded that we are the instruments of God moving forward God’s will for our broken world. Saturday, September 25, 2015, was one of these days. As moderator, it was my honor to represent the Presbytery of New York City at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in a prayer service and interreligious dialogue with Pope Francis. I stood on line with my ticket and slowly made my way in with religious people from all walks of life. It was simply, well, beautiful, to see the different representations of faith embodied in one place. This was the largest interreligious gathering since the events of 9/11. It was a service calling for peace and continued dialogue. It was a service calling attention to the need for continued healing.

Pope Francis prayed for those who were lost on that day as well as the family members who were there for their loved ones lost. Just walking into the 9/11 Memorial Museum brings you back to that day when life changed for the world.

I, like many of you, remember exactly where I was on that morning of 9/11. I had to help a school district of approximately 1,350 students process what they were watching happen right in front of their eyes. I must have had direct contact with more than 400 junior high and high school students, their parents, and the community on that day. The invincible nature of hopeful youth disappeared, leaving teenagers bereft of the braveness to dream. Parents streamed in searching for ways to answer their younger children’s question, “Why would somebody hate us so much?” I also volunteered to counsel families and victims at Liberty State Park across the harbor from the smoldering city; hearing stories of bravery, stories of loss, stories of finding God, stories of losing God. Called to heal in this moment of our communal life was a powerful and humbling experience.

This interreligious service with Pope Francis was actually very healing for me. There was healing in parts of my spirit that I didn’t even know needed healing. I recorded a fundraising CD of hymns that very next day after 9/11, which was entitled, “I Surrender, Lord.” The CD became a “comfort soundtrack” for thousands after that day. It was pointed out to me that the CD actually was an integral part of people’s self-care after the tragedy.

I was reminded during this service just how vital self-care really is. Just as I didn’t know I needed healing since I was doing so much tending after 9/11, so our spirits’ hurts find hidden places to reside. Pope Francis and our other interfaith partners helped me take care of myself. It truly was a moment when the one world community was able to present the best of their faith traditions. Although I did a bit of healing and am sure others found some peace, something bigger happened that day. On that day I felt the prayers of the world all pointed towards the intention of peace and reconciliation lift the world a bit closer to wholeness. Let us do this for one another so that we can be healed as a presbytery, as a church, as humanity, as God would have us be whole.

The Pope’s prayer of remembrance is needed all the more as we continue to face terror and fear in our world.


Ten years of Christian Churches Together

by The Rev. Carlos Malavé
Executive Director Christian Churches Together

More than fifteen years ago, I learned a phrase that for many Presbyterians is like a mantra, “to be Presbyterian is to be ecumenical.” After many years of ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I have discovered and experienced the richness of the Presbyterian ecumenical traditions. First, we can be proud of the leadership and the vision that hundreds of Presbyterians have given to the ministry of church unity. Secondly, the PC(USA) has not only contributed to this unity movement with its theological reflection and the active involvement of its people, but also by investing millions of dollars throughout the last seventy-five years. Thirdly, not all Presbyterians have always celebrated or supported the commitment of their denomination towards the unity of the Church. There have always been many who would rather live their faith in alienation than reach out to fellow followers of Jesus.

The basis for our commitment to the unity of the Church is found nowhere else but the Bible: “I ask ... also …that they may all be one” (John 17:20–21, NRSV). For Jesus, the unity of the Church was so critical that he believed the absence of unity would erode the credibility of his mission and the gospel. The Church is yet to understand the implications of Jesus’ words and this gospel truth. Sadly, for most Christians, this is still a minor theological assertion.

A Presbyterian leader who clearly understood this truth and dedicated his life to the pursuit of unity was the Reverend Eugene Carson Blake. In his now historical sermon in 1960, Rev. Blake stated this truth very clearly: “Our divided state makes almost unbelievable our common Christian claim that Jesus Christ is Lord and that He is the Prince of Peace.”

Rev. Blake envisioned a Presbyterian church that would offer herself as a servant of God’s will and God’s eschatological purposes: “All that we claim for the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches we would lay on the altar. We offer it all to our fellow Christians for whatever use it may be to the whole Church. With the whole Church we hold ourselves alert for the surprises with which the Lord of history can alter the tempo of our renewal, and for the new forms with which an eternally recreating God can startle us while he secures his Church.”

The PC(USA) has consistently participated in all the major national and global ecumenical efforts. They have also participated in many bilateral and multilateral dialogues, both nationally and globally. I fondly remember a peculiar bilateral dialogue that we carried out for several years with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. So far, this may have been the only bilateral dialogue that the PC(USA) has had with a nontraditional denomination.

For the last ten years, the PC(USA) has been a participant in Christian Churches Together (CCT). During the fall of the year 2001, a group of national Christian leaders met in Baltimore, hosted by William Cardinal Keeler, to discuss the possibility of a new ecumenical body that would build bridges among the wide theological divides of the Church in our country. Several PC(USA) leaders were among those who attended during the first five formational years.

Today, after ten years of existence, CCT is recognized by many as the “crossroads” point of American Christianity. For example, very few places (organizations) provide safe space for leaders of Pentecostal communions to sit at the table and dialogue over a meal with their historic Protestant counterparts. The main purpose of CCT is to bring Christians face-to-face who otherwise would never be in the same room. It is our hope that we will learn to trust and love each other and, by so doing, find ways to promote together the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Since the very beginning, CCT has focused its attention on two of the most important social justice issues in America: racism and hunger/poverty. The conversations, official statements, educational efforts, and advocacy on these two social justice issues have been carried forward to this day. A few related issues have also been part of these dialogues: immigration and mass incarceration. CCT has also addressed, on at least two occasions, two more traditional church topics: evangelism and the effect of immigration on the reshaping of the church in the USA.

In the words of the late Bishop Thomas Hoyt Jr., “CCT has come a long way.” The late Bishop Hoyt shared his assessment while giving a biblical reflection to the CCT Steering Committee, just two months before his sudden death. His comment reflected on the doubts that many African American leaders had on the commitment of white (Evangelical & Pentecostal) leaders to address issues relevant to the African American communities. Throughout the last ten years, CCT has been in a clear trajectory towards making substantial contributions to the transformation of social injustices directly affecting African Americans and immigrant groups in our country. The contributions that CCT is making are not driven by the desire to impress our friends who had doubts in the past. The contributions are an honest expression of a growing understanding of the unequivocal intersection and interdependence of the gospel and justice. The leadership of CCT continues their journey in the hope that their commitment to both social justice issues and the gospel is evident to all.

Among the many challenges that CCT faces, I will highlight two: minimal financial resources and the participation of younger generations. CCT was established under the premise that it would not be a big financial burden to the communions. In line with that, a very minimal annual contribution is required from the communions and organizations. Today it is evident that CCT may not be able to thrive unless we find ways to increase the financial contributions of the participant communions/organizations.

The challenge to engage the younger generation is one common to most institutional Christian organizations; CCT is not exempt from this challenge. Together with the churches, we must discover how the present institutions will be able to join younger generations in their spiritual quest. One way in which CCT is seeking to work together with young leaders is by exploring possibilities for partnership with groups working on environmental issues.

It seems that the Church today is as fragmented as it has ever been. At the same time, we can’t deny all the achievements of the ecumenical movement during the 20th century. This quest for unity and reconciliation may seem elusive, but the Spirit that fuels the movement is unquenchable. The prayer Jesus expressed in the gospel of John will be answered; after all, it is God who is orchestrating everything. The leaders of Christian Churches Together give thanks to God for the solidarity and the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to work together in the healing and reconciliation of the people of God.


Our Cup Does Run Over

By The Rev. Dr. Steve H. Shussett,
Pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania

For the last seven weeks I have led a Christian education series at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church using the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s We Believe curriculum. How we “Engage the Gospel” is not just a Reformed concern. Now we have begun a new series that deals with Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Is there a Presbyterian seminarian over the past few decades who hasn’t studied Bonhoeffer to some degree?

As we watched the DVD on Bonhoeffer’s early theological studies, we heard of his spiritual awakening on Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square, seeing people of different races, cultures, and nationalities, bound together by their common faith. And I reflected on the meals provided to the homeless in our city, most visibly by host churches of various stripes like the United Church of Christ, Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran. But less visibly if no less importantly, are the multitude of believers who come and provide food, preparation, and hospitality. Their names are not on the outside of the building but on the chalkboard inside, where they can be appropriately thanked.

Like the cup of Psalm 23, the space overflows with goodness and mercy, and it is expressed in expansiveness of faith and language. The Muslim Association is on the schedule every month, and the gathered community shows its respect as a traditional blessing is offered, sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic, and sometimes in both. Just yesterday I walked into the church office to see bags and boxes of food. It seems that a five-year-old girl, a Hindu, learned that not everyone has as much to eat as she does. So for her birthday she asked that instead of gifts, foodstuffs be brought, and she in turn brought these to St. Paul’s. After the many trips from car to building, she and her family asked if they could pray in the church’s sanctuary. And so they did.

For some, hearing Jesus’ prayer that we would be one as he and God are one (John 17) means that our diversity is a failure. As long as we are many—Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran—and not one, Jesus’ prayer remains unfulfilled. Others suggest that the diversity of our faith traditions—do they mean only Christian, or also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist?—is an exhibition of the diversity demonstrated in so many other ways. Diversity is the norm, so perhaps it is God’s preference. I enjoy the theological debate, but sometimes I wonder if it is a contemporary version of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Not that there may not be some theological “truth” to be derived, but does it really matter?

Bonhoeffer would go on to write that the church is the church when it exists for others. Soon, Thanksgiving Eve services at their best will gather people from north and south and east and west, a witness to how we can come together with all of our differences. When attendance is poor, however, that witness is diluted. And what does it mean if we come together for annual worship, but no more than that?

But when we come together for the purpose of serving the other, hand-in-hand, side-by-side, our color, creed, and nationality become a witness to the God who knows the birds of the air and the hair on our head. A witness to the God who cares for us so much that as Christians we confess that he came as one of us to walk with all of us.

This week “Crossroads” opens in St. Paul’s, the only day shelter for the homeless who otherwise have few options for a warm place before the night shelters open. In the years since it opened, its main purpose has been warmth and shelter. This year, however, we are seeking the community’s assistance to provide life skills training, education, and companionship. For those who wish to improve their state in life, we are hoping to provide at least a toehold. For those who feel invisible, we hope to help them be known, be seen. We are a small church, with an older population. There is no way this or the soup kitchen is possible without the many who come from contexts beyond the pale of Lutheran, Christian, Anglo, middle-class, Allentown. It is only the expansiveness of charity, generosity, and hospitality that make it possible for this church to exist to serve others. Perhaps our greatest gift is to be the place where others can serve.

Are we the same or are we different? Yes. Are we one, or are we many? Yes.


A Christmas Greeting from the World Council of Churches

By Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General Secretary, World Council of Churches

“Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.”
Matthew 2:14

“…and the mother with her child is driven into foreign lands.”
St John Chrysostom on Matthew 2:14, as quoted by St Thomas Aquinas

holy familyThe miracle of Christmas is illuminated by God’s glory and orchestrated with glad songs of joy. In Matthew’s gospel we read of Magi following a star, learning of biblical prophecy, carrying lavish gifts for a child born to be king. The pilgrimage of the Magi brought them at last to “the place where the child lay”, a peaceful place where they paused in wonder; then, their journey continued along a new and different route as they told their story on the homeward way.

Amid the glory and perfect goodness of this great Good News, the gospel writer reminds us that the image of the Nativity is drawn against the backdrop of the often brutal world we know. Following the Magi’s farewell to the Holy Family, Matthew tells us (2:13-14),

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt”.

The guiding of the star at Christ’s birth is succeeded in short order by the Flight into Egypt. The story of Christmas and Epiphany is incomplete if we fail to remember the Refugees… refugees sent forth with the whispered benediction of an angel, assuring them of God’s abiding care.

In this Year of our Lord 2015, the number of refugees and other displaced persons in our world is greater than ever before. According to the annual report of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, the number of human beings forcibly displaced from their homes is at least 59.5 million, up from 51.2 million in mid-2014 and 37.5 million just a decade ago. These daunting figures represent tens of millions of women like Mary, men like Joseph and children like the infant Jesus.

Reasons for displacement are many, and terrible in themselves. Warfare, injustice, persecution, disease and other natural catastrophes, as well as the consequences of climate change, are among the reasons for world-wide distress and human suffering. Root causes must be addressed, even as we seek to aid one another in ministries of care and recovery.

Throughout the past year, I have had opportunities to visit refugees and people in churches and agencies who are accompanying them in their trials. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit and affirmations of human dignity on every side. We have much to offer one another, including the qualities of dignity, compassion, hope and love. This is a critical moment in the lives of churches and societies on every continent and in every region.

In a recent communiqué on the refugee crisis, church leaders in Europe made these observations:

As Christians we share the belief that we see in the other the image of Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46) … The experience of migration and crossing of borders is known to the Church of Christ. The Holy Family were refugees; the very Incarnation of Our Lord is a crossing of the border between the Human and the Divine.”

The same religious representatives concluded, in part,

As churches this is an opportunity to share more widely experience and expertise in offering spiritual and pastoral support, ecumenical and interfaith cooperation and building bridges between diverse communities.”

At this time of the Christian year, we remember God’s great love for the world in the gift of Jesus Christ. And we read once again of the flight of his family in search of a safer place than home. We also remember the Master’s later teaching, as recorded in Matthew 25:40,

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

In this festival season celebrating the Incarnation in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, let us honour every gift we receive from God in Creation, and let us respect every member of the human family!

May all the blessings of Christmas be yours, and may they be yours to share,



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