By Walt Wiltschek (*)
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People come to ecumenism in different ways. Some grow up immersed in it. Some encounter it via a particular, momentous experience. Others come to an understanding of it gradually.
For Sara Faulhafer, a 28-year-old member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the lessons of ecumenism came through seminary. When she began studies at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Ontario two years ago, she encountered a very diverse student body.
Only 40 percent of the students there are actually Lutheran. The rest come from a variety of Protestant bodies and from other traditions, including Unitarians and Buddhists. Worship is held there each week, and this year the seminary administrators decided to reflect the students' diversity in worship. Ecumenical speakers come in regularly and help the students plan a week's worth of services from a specific tradition.
As part of that ecumenical effort, a delegation from World Council of Churches member churches visited the seminary last spring. They talked about the upcoming 9th Assembly in Brazil and about the stewards' programme for young people. That caught Faulhafer's interest.
She was worried about missing several weeks of classes, but the faculty quickly put those worries to rest. "The professors were all very supportive," Faulhafer recalls. "They said, 'Just go! It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. Forget about school!'"
And so a few weeks ago, she found herself in Porto Alegre, joining with about 150 other stewards who aid the operation of the Assembly while learning about ecumenical life, as well as numerous youth delegates, interns and others.
"I really wasn't sure what to expect", she said. "Pretty much everyone I talked to said it was going to be life-changing. It's just been phenomenal."
She found herself making friends from all corners of the world during the youth pre-Assembly event. They heard from speakers, studied the Bible together, discussed issues and planned for the Assembly ahead. They worked on topics of special interest to them to be covered in ecumenical conversations - in Faulhafer's case, on women's issues in the church.
A highlight of the event, she said, was when a group of African youth led singing and taught the group a dance. There was no rehearsal, no formality - just an invitation to get up and try it. "The whole room was praising God," she said. "It was amazing".
Very quickly, Faulhafer felt at home. She said the design of the programme, bringing the youth together first to build friendships and become oriented in a smaller group, works well. Only four members from her church came to the Assembly, so developing other connections has been important to her.
"I think the stewards have a different experience than a lot of the delegates", she said. "We're here for the pre-Assembly and live together. We've really grown into a strong community fast."
Smiling, she adds, "It's good to be able to walk into the worship tent or plenary hall and have a half-dozen people recognize your face, and also to be able to reflect together on our experience here. It's so fast-paced and so intense."
The ecumenical conversations have been Faulhafer's favourite part of the agenda. Her work as a steward has been focused on the worship tent, where she helps to prepare for morning and evening prayers each day, hands out sheets with the order of the service and answers questions.
She has been heavily involved with the youth striving to make their voices heard in the Assembly. She found other young people, like her, passionate about ecumenism and determined to be involved in more than "bit parts" or purely supporting roles. They are committed to having their age group and perspectives fairly represented on the WCC central committee and in other leadership positions.
Faulhafer has made careful plans to take this first-hand experience of global ecumenism back with her to Canada. She has been keeping an online blog from the Assembly so that her church and the seminary community may keep up with her reflections. Several congregations have already asked her to do presentations when she returns home, and she plans to do a programme at the seminary, as well.
She is also seeking to get something placed to the agenda of her synod convention this summer, and plans are in the works to do something with other Canadians who have come to Porto Alegre at a Canadian Council of Churches justice festival for young adults occurring in August.
For Sara, ecumenism is here to stay.
"Long-term, it's definitely going to shape my ministry", said Falhaufer, reflecting on the Assembly experience. "I want to become further involved with the WCC or other local ecumenical initiatives - in both, hopefully. It's something I'm going to draw on the rest of my life."
(*) Walt Wiltschek is editor of Messenger, the denominational magazine of the Church of the Brethren. An ordained minister, he lives in St. Charles, Ill., in the United States.
Contact in Porto Alegre:+55 / 51 8419.2169