By Stephen Brown
“I’m hoping for an open, honest, discussion on some very difficult issues: ethical issues, theological issues, justice issues,” Abuom said in a video interview from Nairobi, Kenya during Germany’s four-day Ecumenical Kirchentag (church convention), which concluded on 16 May.
Originally intended to bring tens of thousands of people to Frankfurt for four days of worship, meetings, debates and cultural events, the Kirchentag was reshaped as a “digital and decentralized” gathering due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the Kirchentag’s closing worship, Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber of the Evangelical Church in Germany invited participants to accompany the WCC as it prepares for its 2022 assembly, to be held in Karlsruhe, under the theme, “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”
It is the first time a WCC assembly has taken place in Europe since 1968 and the first assembly to meet in Germany.
“We will have an atmosphere and environment where those who come from outside of Europe will find space, and acceptance to engage with those in Europe from different traditions,” said Abuom, an Anglican layperson from Kenya who has been moderator of the WCC central committee since 2013.
She described the assembly theme as a powerful statement from an African perspective.
“If you have suffered slavery, racism, colonization, imperialism and you have always been trampled upon, it takes truly the love of God to forgive, to reconcile, and to walk to unity,” Abuom said in the online interview with Dr Uta Andrée, head of the office for mission, ecumenism and diakonia of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern Germany.
“I think the African churches are coming to say, ‘for unity, reconciliation, we do need the power to forgive, we do need to address our underlying cycles of trauma,’” Abuom continued.
The concept of unity and reconciliation through God’s love is based, she said, “on the power to forgive the past and to really speak openly, frankly with one another.”
Abuom described the COVID-19 pandemic as symbol of a situation that threatens the whole of global life.
“The pandemic has not come out of the blue. It is part of our inability to sustainably relate to creation,” she said, and linked to issues such as climate change.
“The World Council and the ecumenical movement at large are challenged to rethink the issue of life in its wholeness,” Abuom said.
In Africa, she stated, the pandemic has had a dramatic effect on churches, with congregations, as elsewhere, being unable to hold in-person services and losing many of their leaders to the virus.
“No one understood pastors as frontline workers who needed protection,” Abuom said.
At the same time, churches have tried to combat “false theologies” that claim the pandemic is a sign of the “end times.”
Churches now need to address violence, especially domestic violence, resulting from the pandemic and confinement, and new forms of trauma and isolation that people are facing.
A major task for churches and the WCC is now to raise the issue of the unjust and inequitable global distribution of vaccines, Abuom underlined.
Her contacts with the WCC go back to 1975, when its fifth assembly took place in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and Abuom helped distribute the daily assembly newspaper.
She was a supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, and the experience of reading and listening to the assembly speeches resonated with her own experience and commitment to mission, justice and the search for unity.
Abuom then went on to work for a stint in the WCC youth department in Geneva.
“I look back and say it has really been grace to be part of this very important movement that seeks to restore the wholeness of humanity.”