Encouragement, inspiration and storytelling animated the plenary discussion of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.
The session, first in a series of WCC Central Committee plenary sessions on key aspects of the current work of the fellowship, focused on the spiritual and programmatic core of the council’s work, chronicling its development, assessing its application to key issue areas and marshalling the commitment of member churches and ecumenical partners to the ongoing work.
The session first highlighted the most visible initiatives of the pilgrimage since its inception after the 10th Assembly of the WCC in late 2013. They included the highly successful climate pilgrimage to the UN-sponsored Paris conference in late 2015 that resulted in a landmark treaty on climate-change curbs; the several recent initiatives and visits with member churches in the Middle East; the 2015 pilgrimage through Latin America by WCC Latin American president Rev. Gloria Nohemy Ulloa Alvarado and the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit; and the pilgrimage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a member church delegation for the observance of the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bombs and commemorations of the victims there.
As Rev. Ulloa remarked, the Latin American pilgrimage helped “to revitalize the spirit and strengthen the commitment” of Latin American churches while amplifying their “voice of hope.”
Dr Fernando Enns, the German Mennonite theologian and central committee member who is co-moderator of the pilgrimage reference group and of its theological study group, offered reflections on the multiple facets and developing understanding of the pilgrimage, especially in its three roles of celebrating the gifts, visiting the wounds, nd transforming injustices in those venues encountered.
The focal point of the pilgrimage in 2016 has been “peacebuilding in the context of religion and violence in the Middle East, with a focus on Palestine and Israel,” he said. As an example, Enns reported on the reference group’s own pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine, in February 2016, vividly describing participants’ encounters with locals there, as well as with member churches and church leaders.
“We heard moving testimonies from those who live in the city of Jerusalem – in the midst of threats, aggression, insecurity and attacks. We walked the streets of the Via Dolorosa, sharing them with pilgrim groups. We met in the face of refugee camps, settlements, check points and the separation wall. Smelling tear gas, witnessing discrimination, listening to the frustration of our dear brothers and sisters – Christians, Jews, Muslims. We visited the wounds!” said Enns.
The session also featured several specific initiatives that exemplify the pilgrimage concept and what has been learned from engagements in specific contexts.
Rev. Tore Johnsen of the Church of Norway and Sami Church Council president referenced not only the physical, cultural and spiritual violence experienced over the centuries by Norway’s indigenous Sami people, but also internalization of the violence. “We become our own enemies,” he said. For him, “Truth-telling, repentance, and restitution are key to reconciliation,” and incarnating the pilgrimage entails a multigenerational project to counter Indigenous People’s invisibility.
Reviewing the ACT Alliance campaign Climate Justice Now, its general secretary, Dr John Nduna, stressed the impact of the ecumenical family of member churches in the ACT Alliance joining to press for a strong agreement at COP21. For him, “the pilgrimage has just begun.”
Conference of European Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Heikki Huttunen, speaking of the global migrant numbers and their affect on European churches, termed it “a crisis of solidarity and community,” teaching us that “Pilgrimage demands metanoia.”
Finally, Rev. Waltrina Middleton, relating the Black Lives Matter movement in the US to the pilgrimage motif, movingly affirmed that “We who believe in freedom cannot rest” and testified to the ongoing relevance and power of nonviolent resistance to effect social change. “Faith leaders must take up this work,” she said.
At its core, the pilgrimage motif should open us up to encounter, repentance and conversion, said Enns, summarizing the reference group’s reflections on the concept. “We shared the conviction that ‘going out’ and being ‘on the way’ are central to Christian discipleship. Jesus sent his disciples out, to walk, to be vulnerable and dependent on the hospitality of others – and to find God on the way – in the most God-forsaken places.”