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#WCC70: Remembering Orissa

#WCC70: Remembering Orissa

A man greets the Living Letters team at a camp for victims of communal violence in Orissa, 2009. Photo: Karen Burke/WCC

11 January 2018

In 2018 we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. In order to create a lively first-hand account of the ecumenical fellowship and of our shared journey, the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit has invited all member churches to contribute stories, which we will bring to you throughout the coming year.

"You may want to tell the story of a person or of an event. You may want to bring to our memories an important achievement or, why not, a failure from which we could learn a lot," Tveit wrote. He continued: "You may want deepen the search for Christian unity, to stress the importance of our common Christian witness or to give an account of our common struggle for justice and peace. In all cases, you are very welcome!"

The first story in our series was written by Gerard Willemsen, international director of the Uniting Church in Sweden. If you feel inspired to send us your story, too, please be in touch!

I met you in a refugee camp in the Khandamal Region, Orissa, India. You were an elderly man, belonging to the Kondha, one of the tribes in that part of India. We had been travelling in the country as a group from different countries, sent by the WCC, to encourage the churches in India. We were a living letter from the worldwide community to the Church in India. After some other visits we came to Orissa.

The year was 2009 and the situation was tense. Heavy persecutions against Christians had been going earlier that year, organized effectively by Sangh Parivar, a fundamentalist Hindu nationalist organization. We learned that over a hundred Christians had been murdered, many more abused, that thousands of Christian houses had been burned and that 70 000 had been forced to leave their villages and flee.

You were one of those who had to flee and lost their home. You told us how you and all Christians in your village were threatened to be killed. You shared with us how you fled into the jungle in heavy rains. How difficult it was to travel by foot under such circumstances and how your wife did not cope because she was blind, but was carried by your son. You fled to the top of a mountain and saw your house being burnt and now you were here, together with a few hundred others in similar situations.

It was here I met the suffering and persecuted Church for the first time. It was also here I discovered how important it was for you and others that we came and listened. We could not do much, or maybe we could, because we could pray together. We spoke different languages, you and I, but seeing your suffering I felt the suffering of the Church, and understood that Christ himself suffered with you.

Displaced villagers greet Living Letters team with dance.

A dance to greet the Living Letters team.
Photo: Karen Burke/WCC

I understood that our coming did encourage you. “You were brave to come”, someone said. Perhaps. But all the more, those we met were brave to see a future after all this. To not lose hope. And paradoxically, I left your camp, sad and shocked, yes, but also encouraged. Encouraged by the hope I saw in your eyes, my brothers and sisters, by the determinedness to stay faithful to Christ.

I remember the man who witnessed about Hindu fellow villagers who tried to help. I remember stories about how God was present in the midst of all, and I remember another, saying that “some more have come to us Christians since all this started.” And I did for the first time understand the deep meaning of the word of Paul in 2 Cor 4:8-9 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. Persecuted but not abandoned. That is what I did see in the eyes of many of you. When I looked at you I did see our suffering Lord, but also our risen Lord.

I have taken your story with me, and kept it in my heart. I have shared it sometimes, and I have prayed together with many for you and the many other victims in Kandhamal during the time after that visit. Today, I hope that you have been able to find a good place to live. And I want you to know that your endurance has been an important witness.

Now I have served my church many years in the field of international mission. I have seen suffering in many places and it would be easy to lose heart. But the hope I saw in your eyes gives me hope for this world. And it was there and then I got to understand how important it is to be part of this world-wide and colourful community that the WCC is. Where we can meet over borders of traditions, cultures and languages and gather around Christ, being on a pilgrimage for justice and peace together.

The value of this journey we made into Khandamal, that year goes beyond what can be measured by us and it is precisely that which is the great value of our WCC community.

Gerard Willemsen
Uniting Church in Sweden

For more information about the WCC 70th anniversary: