John D. Lewis performs at a concert in the Ecumenical Centre chapel during the WCC Central Committee meeting in 1973. Photo: John Taylor

John D. Lewis performs at a concert in the Ecumenical Centre chapel during the WCC Central Committee meeting in 1973. Photo: John Taylor

In 2018 we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. In order to create a lively firsthand account of the ecumenical fellowship and of our shared journey, member churches have contributed stories of people, events, achievements and even failures, all of which have deepened our collective search for Christian unity.

This story was written by John D. Lewis, from the United Kingdom.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the World Council of Churches.

In hindsight, I was a very “young” eighteen-year-old when I arrived to be a steward at the meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee in Geneva in 1973.

My dad, David Lewis, was a translator at the WCC, and it was his idea I should try for a steward's role. I am so grateful he suggested it.

I'd been to Geneva to visit him several times, but this was different. Within hours of arriving at the airport, I was enveloped in the loving arms of the WCC.

I flew in in the late afternoon, and we crossed town to a small restaurant on the tram route to Carouge where my dad lived.

I was at once struck by the feeling of friendship and of a fellowship I had never experienced. I broke bread - into the inevitable fondue - with Dad and around 20 WCC staffers and friends.

And when I met up with fellow stewards the next day, the warmth was greater still. Along with Julia Gallin, whose mother Liz, I believe, worked at the Ecumenical Centre, and a young American called Mark, I was assigned as a “press steward” charged with helping the 168-strong – yes, 168 –international press corps. The three of us were, at once, true friends.

And so the Central Committee meeting began. I recall watching from our perch on the balcony above the foyer as Phillip Potter, resplendent in an almost garishly colourful, casual shirt chatted with bishops, metropolitans and archimandrites clad in their formal robes and spectacular hats.

As each plenary session ended, Julia, Mark and I were the press corps' favourite people as they competed to grab one of the phone booths on the balcony. The friendly rivalry between The Guardian's Baden Hickman and the BBC's Douglas Brown was to shape my life forever. It was those two men who convinced me to train as a journalist.

Of course, being young, I didn't know any better than to do as I was told. Manning the “security” desk placed at the end of the Communications Department corridor – to keep the press corps from sneaking in – I stoically stopped the elderly gentleman with no pass. Despite his protestations, I told him he could not enter.

John’s father David Lewis at work as a
translator for the WCC 6th Assembly in
Vancouver in 1983. Photo: WCC

My father's voice – filled with growling humour – piped up behind me: “It’s all right, John, you can let Dr Visser 't Hooft through, he's one of us."

And the great man thanked me for my efforts. Unbelievable and yet so believable.

What I discovered that first summer was that being among people who care allows you to care. Being among important people who show humility, not entitlement allows you to be humble too.

And the kindness of strangers, for these people were strangers, astonished an impressionable teenager.

I carry all of those things with me to this day.

The following year, I was invited to repeat my role as a steward, this time in Berlin. My dad was not to be there, so I was housed by a German radio reporter, a complete stranger to me, for three nights before moving to the “hostel” rented for stewards.

Once again, Mark was there, and I made a new group of friends. And in the Kongresshalle, people I still did not know came up and wished me well, and asked me to pass my best wishes to my dad.

I am proud to have been there, to have been gifted such a huge opportunity.

My only regret is that it took about 20 years beyond those wonderful summers for me to realise what I had been gifted, what the WCC had given me.

Happy birthday. Here's to the next 70 years.


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