By Klein Fausto Emperado *

The varied topographical settings in an archipelagic country like the Philippines, from the shorelines and planes to the high mountain ranges, farmlands, and urban high-rise buildings, reflect the plethora of challenges and struggles that these communities have faced over the centuries. The worsening state of human rights, armed conflict, poverty, social inequality, genuine agrarian reform, marginalisation of women, children, and youth, Indigenous peoples' struggle for self-determination and protection of ancestral land, corruption, and the calamities faced by communities as a result of environmental degradation are just a few of the issues that continue to confront the country and its people.

Despite society's dark and hopeless situations, ecumenism offers a source of hope for the struggling masses. As churches come together in faith and action, they join the people in their longing for God's promised abundant life for all. In this archipelagic country, ecumenism reaches far more than the gathering of churches for prayer and fellowship. It is a constant process of reflection and action that seeks to enhance the lives of people in the community, and it requires a strong commitment to work for the renewal of God's creation.

Voices from the ground

"Grassroots ecumenism encourages deeper unity among churches through our work for truth, peace based on justice, and the integrity of God’s creation. Like in the Cordillera region, it is grounded in our engagement with the Indigenous peoples’ struggles in defending their land, life, and resources," said Maricar Delfun, coordinator of the Regional Ecumenical Council in the Cordillera in the Philippines' northernmost region. Her experience of ecumenism transcends from the unity of faith in Jesus Christ and fellowship gatherings to direct involvement in accompanying the people as part of Christian witness as a response to the challenges and concerns of the people.

The Philippines, like every other nation in the world today, has been hit by natural catastrophes and disasters, the majority of which have wreaked havoc on people's lives. With the community's environmental concerns, ecumenism has grown more concrete through the close cooperation of churches for an immediate response during these periods of disruption.

"Through the concerted effort among churches, I have seen that every action is based on the needs of the people," said Rev. Conrado Manuel Mangalindan Jr., recounting how he directly engaged in disaster relief and risk management work in south-central Luzon.

“During the pandemic, the churches responded quickly through a well-coordinated logistics system," Mangalindan added. He went on to say that his ecumenical involvement broadened the scope of his ministry, allowing him to go to places whenever there is a need to respond to the people. "Through the local ecumenical movement, I was able to transform into flesh a theology that is close to the people's situation," Mangalindan explained.

Reflections from former and current Leaders

"It was very important for us to sow the seeds of ecumenism back in the days," Bishop Erme Camba remarked, "because, as I look at it now, the church denominations are now working together and with a very wide scope of relationships." Camba, who previously served in the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the Christian Conference of Asia, and the World Council of Churches (WCC), spoke about how local ecumenism began through personal relationships with fellow ministers and lay leaders, as well as their respective families. He reflected on how it has evolved into meaningful participation and stands as a beacon of hope for future generations.

Dumaguete City, located in the middle region of the Philippines, is home to a dynamic ecumenical community that authentically lives out the spirit of ecumenism through collaborative activities for both the clergy and the lay, the young and adults, as well as future priests and pastors from seminaries.

From prayers to fellowship meals, camps, and meetings, the ecumenical community captured international attention two years ago as they struggled against the government's proposed reclamation project, threatening the livelihoods of fisherfolks and the rich marine biodiversity of the Tañon Strait. Church leaders and members marched through the streets, conducted weekly flash rallies and prayer services, issued individual and joint statements of opposition, and collaborated with all sectors of society to courageously oppose the destructive reclamation.

However, this community is faced with an invitation and a challenge for the current generation of young leaders to take over the helm of leadership in order to further strengthen ecumenical ties. "Our joint efforts in the movement will soon cause a ripple of hope to each of us as we embark together in fulfilling God's mission," said Jediael Minguito, an ecumenical young leader from Dumaguete City who recently served as a steward for the WCC centralcommittee meeting last June. “Moving forward may be difficult, but we should see beyond the future of the world. A world where unity, justice, and peace prevail. A world where love, hope, and faith become one," the youth leader further added.

Despite the enormous task of continuing to lead in the local ecumenical community, he voiced strong hopes for sustainability due to the active involvement of churches and their youth leaders in ecumenical ministry.

Nurturing hope for deeper unity

The ecumenical movement's commitment to uplifting people's lives has been consolidated, with the goal of strengthening people's capability and reducing vulnerability in the face of calamities and disasters. From unity to cooperation, the task of ecumenism now includes cultivating hope and resilience in vulnerable populations.

"In the event of a disaster, the community should be able to stand on its own two feet. In the Philippine context, ecumenism has always meant community organising," said Rev. Choanalfe Aragones, a local church pastor who collaborates with the National Council of Churches in the Philippines’ disaster risk management initiatives.

As the WCC celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, one aspect of the celebration includes telling the narratives of local ecumenical movements across the globe. These narratives offer both inspiration and colour for the vast global church movement. Despite the obstacles and struggles, the continuity of ecumenical relations is ultimately dependent on the dedication of individuals who choose to serve in various facets of the ministry.

Concerning hopes for greater unity, Camba shared his observations that seminaries are now forging relationships and organising programmes together, not as enemies and competitors, but as coworkers in the ministry, particularly in local communities where there is a great need to respond to various issues affecting the people.

Those involved in ecumenical ministry follow and carry on Christ's work in the lives of those in need, accompanying and collaborating with them in creating a more just and equitable future.

The ecumenical movement resembles a spring of hope from which future generations might draw inspiration for transforming and empowering church leaders. There is a higher call to lay aside differences; hence, churches must work together for the common good of humanity and struggle for truth, justice, and peace.

* Klein Fausto Emperado is a member of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and currently serves as a staff member for the Christian Conference of Asia.

WCC 75th anniversary