Porto Alegre +10: pilgrim’s memories from the 9th Assembly of the WCC

Marcelo Schneider, Jean-Nicolas Bazin († 2015), and Rev. Dr Rodney Booth († 2014), from the United Church of Canada, were part of the technical team for WCC 9th Assembly plenaries.

I was standing in the control booth at the back of the auditorium when the moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) declared the 9th Assembly open, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on 14 February 2006.

My friend Jean-Nicolas Bazin and I were surrounded by light and sound technicians and we had our eyes on the script of the opening plenary, making sure everything was flowing smoothly and according to plan.

Just months before, I had concluded my studies with a doctorate on the WCC’s debate and work on social ethics. However, my job in the Local Office of the Assembly was more related to communications and logistics.

In the run-up to the Assembly, I was invited to take part in some preparatory discussions on a solid and coherent technical infrastructure for the event. One special concern was that the life of the Assembly should express the search for Christian unity, the diversity of the WCC fellowship and offer insights about the future of the ecumenical movement.

The 9th Assembly of the WCC took place in the fairly large campus of the Roman Catholic University PUCRS. Participants had to walk at least 10 minutes to go from the plenary hall to the other side, where the tent for daily common prayers was located.

During the planning process, we realized that, at least twice a day, all participants would be walking on that route from one side of the campus to the other. I am not sure if we used the word “pilgrimage”, but the concept was very present in our discussions about the “Ecumenical Way” in the PUCRS campus.

Our intention was to use this daily walk to let them experience many aspects of the WCC’s history and work. And so we did.

Small signs with the themes, dates and host cities of the 8 previous Assemblies were displaced in chronological order from the big tent, the place where we prayed together, to the plenary hall, the place where the fellowship would reflect and decide about its future.

Smaller tents were strategically spread along the way, enabling space for encounters and exhibitions. That is where the Ecumenical Water Network made its first big public appearance.

Youth also had its dedicated space along the Assembly’s pilgrims path. I recall the great expectations on the role of youth in that Assembly. The WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, made that clear the very first day of the Assembly, in his report at the opening plenary:

“The time has come. It is young people’s passion and insight today that will ensure the relevance and the vitality of the ecumenical movement. Without young people, our ecumenical family is incomplete. We need to nurture meaningful relationships and share leadership between generations. Young people need to know that they are important partners and that we are ready to learn from their ecumenical experience as well”.

Kobia was right. The harvest of the Porto Alegre Assembly’s youth ecumenical engagement was very fruitful. Just to name one example, several young stewards from that Assembly are currently serving as WCC staff, members of our governing bodies, commissions and working groups or collaborating with the WCC programmatic work on local and regional levels.

The Porto Alegre Assembly was also the time for the midterm evaluation of the WCC's “Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace”. Youth participants made their voices heard in the thematic plenary “Youth Overcoming Violence”.

The strong testimony of Olara A. Otunnu, president of the LBL Foundation for Children and former UN under-secretary-general and special representative for children and armed conflict, was extremely significant to me.

“When adults wage war, children pay the highest price”, he said. 10 years later, that statement is still very true. This becomes painfully clear looking at the situation of Syrian refugees.

Both the bilateral agreement recently signed between the WCC and UNICEF and the UN/WCC High Level Conference on the Refugee Crisis in Europe, held last January, in Geneva, are expressions of how the WCC not only continued to work on the issues raised in Porto Alegre but also increased the level of cooperation with important global players for justice and peace.

Looking back to 2006, I see that although the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace is a call from the 10th Assembly of the WCC, held in Busan, Republic of Korea, 7 years later, many of my memories of the Porto Alegre Assembly are somehow related to the concept of the pilgrimage.

The work on economic justice developed by the WCC since the 8th Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, led to the AGAPE call in Porto Alegre.

Many elements of the ecumenical reflection on global economic justice already included entry points to issues related to the environment and were very much present in the WCC’s accompaniment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I don’t believe we would have had such a strong and meaningful Christian participation at COP21 in Paris last December if the WCC had not engaged its member churches in a deep process of reflection and pursued a clear strategy of participation and advocacy for justice in all previous UN climate summits.

The debates in Porto Alegre on “Christian Identity and Religious Plurality” and “Church Unity” offered solid resources for the future work of the Commissions on World Mission and Evangelism and on Faith and Order.

For many, the 2006 Assembly theme, “God, in your Grace, transform the world”, echoed the World Social Forum slogan “Another World is Possible”.  Porto Alegre, a city that hosted the World Social Forum several times, was not the starting point of the WCC’s history, but a meaningful station on the way towards visible unity and a more just and peaceful world. People kept walking together and so did the World Council of Churches.

Next June, the WCC Central Committee will meet in Trondheim, Norway. It will be the first meeting of the Council’s governing body after the adoption by the United Nations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I’m among those who see the SDGs as the result of a process that went beyond the classic model of resolutions made by the UN and national governments, and involved civil society, including faith based organizations like the WCC.

The SDGs cover a broad range of issues, like ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making cities more sustainable, combating climate change, and protecting oceans and forests.

In 2006, we prayed for a world transformed by God’s grace. Maybe our prayers were not only heard, but we also received from the Holy Spirit the instruments and the understanding of our responsibility for transformation.

About the author :

Dr Marcelo Schneider serves as communication officer at the World Council of Churches. He is based in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He is a member of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil.


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.