When did you first start to become interested in ecumenism?
Dr Pillay: I started as I grew up in Sunday School, and then different churches asked me to come and act in plays, so would normally write and produce these plays. I also led a youth group of about 120 people based in the church that I was part of, a Uniting Presbyterian Church. Young people came from every church in the area.
The desire to be beyond a particular denomination grew from that point in time, and eventually spread into me representing the church at youth conferences. Then I became, as a pastor, quite involved in ecumenical work. Whenever I went into a particular area to pastor a congregation, if there was not fellowship of pastors in that area, I would start one. I was instrumental in getting different pastors rom different congregations together.
So, you can see. it was really strongly in me, getting people together from different churches. When I became part of the leadership of the Uniting Presbyterian Church, I was appointed to serve in the WCC central committee. I was appointed to go to the Council for World Mission, and was on the board of trustees with that. I was a patron for the church leaders in South Africa. My vision has grown so much wider that you just couldn’t fix me now in one place. My outlook became too broad. I could never be exclusively in the congregation. I need this exposure to this ecumenical engagement.
Do you recall your first meeting with the WCC?
Dr Pillay: My very first exposure was actually at the WCC 9th Assembly in 2006. That was my first formal engagement. I went there as a commissioned person from the denomination to be part of the leadership. The was my very first formal meeting but I was invited to serve in a couple of groups before that by the leadership of the WCC to represent people form Africa in some conversations.
And now you are the next general secretary. What do you think you will bring to the WCC with your unique gifts?
Dr Pillay: I think this experience of being so broad-based with churches and this desire for churches to come together. If we are true to the spirit, then we need to be working together. That’s because God’s love does move us to transform and reconcile the world. Church unity is one of my absolute priorities. Having grown up with that in my DNA, so to speak, that would be a natural desire to bring churches together.
I believe that churches coming together is one thing, but we also need to offer guidance and direction to a suffering world. We will be dealing with issues of justice, of oppression, of systemic violence, and so forth. We don’t just gather to worship and pray and praise —which is a very important thing for us to do—but we also gather to transform the world. Not that it’s a unique thing for WCC but my passion really excels in that.
Coming back to the election process, you have been waiting for almost two years for a decision. How did you get the energy to remain as a candidate?
Dr Pillay: When I first applied for the post and then became one of the nominees, I believed that this was gong to be what God wants for me. I was aware of all the challenges, all the COVID-19 challenges, and the challenges within the organization itself. I rested well knowing this was where God wants me to be. I followed a sense of calling from form the beginning. I was at peace. If I was not elected, I would have been at peace. Me desire was to remain within the will of God. If I had not been elected, I would have said, “This is God’s will, thank you my Lord,” and I would have been happy with that. I have been very involved as dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Pretoria, and that was really consuming in terms of time, so I wasn’t sitting and waiting. That helped a lot, too. I wasn’t looking for a job. I still had a great job, but I was responding to the call of God. I was comfortable to rest and wait for the appointment.
You are preparing for the WCC 11th Assembly. What do you hope to see?
Dr Pillay: Any assembly is always going to have challenges and issues, and we are living in very pivotal times, and the turbulence and destruction caused by COVID-19 has caused us to reimagine the way we do things as churches. How do we reimagine a new WCC? I’d like us to have conversations about that. Then we are living in a situation with wars and conflicts in Ukraine and Russia, Palestine and Israel, Sudan, Mozambique, and all of these situations will require the churches to speak.
I think public issues will be another factor, as they usually are. I think also it’s going to be a great celebration and have a great impact this time. Every assembly has its issues. We will be facing challenges. I think what we’re leaning in this central committee meeting was a good example: If we learn to trust the work of the Holy Spirit. We can find each other even through difficulties. I am hoping and praying the next assembly can lead us in the same spirit.