Peter Williams/WCC

The weekend before my start at work, my colleagues at the Lutheran World Federation threw a hippie-themed welcoming party for my wife Marilyn and me. I forgave them this condescending camaraderie. After all, longhaired men wearing bead necklaces were still a rarity in Switzerland back then. 

I should specify that I did wear the required suit to work on my first day at the Lutheran World Federation. But instead of a white shirt and necktie, I sported a stylish turtleneck sweater. This seemed to violate the sensibilities of the conservative decorum of the Ecumenical Centre, and I was reminded in no uncertain terms that wearing a shirt and tie to work was obligatory, not optional. I did as I was told. For the time being, at least. But I immediately set to work agitating for a more relaxed dress code policy. Before that year ended, turtlenecks were decreed to be an acceptable alternative. 

My wife Marilyn and I had taken a week touring England before arriving at the Geneva airport in the summer of 1969. Lutheran World Federation staff who met our flight drove us directly to the Ecumenical Centre for a short tour of the building. An aura of historical significance bathed my temperament at the sight of the building that we were about to enter – only five years after it had been built. The sun was shining, the mountains visible all the way to Mont Blanc. It wasn't just the physical beauty that surrounded me. A psychological gravitas imprinted itself on my temperament. I was standing on the soil of Geneva, a city that had become the symbolic crossroad of political, humanitarian, and intellectual worldwide cooperation. 

And here, as I entered the ecumenical chapel, I felt an overwhelming spiritual power washing over me. Or perhaps it was just the odour of wooden oak window panels that had been soaking up the heat of the sun. Nevermind, the architects had gathered into one attractive space symbols of significance to many Christian traditions. Although it was my Lutheran heritage that brought me here, in this building I could feel connected to the colourful variety of many Christian traditions. That all may be one,” no longer seemed a remote, unreachable aspiration.  

When I arrived at the Ecumenical Centre nine years later as staff of the World Council of Churches Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, it felt once again as though the first time. The building was the same, but I was a different person. The people I worked with were different. I discovered the happy fact that the real significance of buildings are not the bricks that keep them erect, but the bodies, minds and spirits of the people who occupy them, who through their work relationships give them meaning.

About the author :

Erich Weingartner previously helped lead the World Council of Churches Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He has also represented CanKor, a Canadian interactive resource on North Korea. From the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, he was also founding head of the Food Aid Liaison Unit of the World Food Programme.


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.