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12.05.05 07:59 Age: 7 yrs

Understanding begets reconciliation: In Athens, youth discover

ATHENS — Understanding is the first step on the road to reconciliation. That is one of the messages that will be carried home by Christian youth from around the world after a week of conversations and reflections on the themes of mission, reconciliation and healing.

Forty-nine young people  gathered here on May 3 for a six-day meeting before the 13th Conference on Mission and Evangelism spon-sored by the World Council  of Churches (WCC).

Vahagn Azizyan, a youth delegate from Armenia, said the pre-conference experience was a "marvelous opportunity to discover Christian riches from all over the world."

Monica Coll Gonzáles, of Cuba, said she'd found that the diversity of participants made for interesting discussions on issues facing the church in the world. "Views and opinions were certainly rich," she said.

Yet, while backgrounds, denominations and opinions varied widely, Gonzáles said many participants shared similar experiences. "It seems that the problems are the same all over the world," she said.

Participants — many of whom were to serve as stewards for the mission and evangelism conference — said they also gained practical knowledge that will help them back home. Bertram Granville Swarts will return to South Africa, where he acknowledges that racism still exists despite 10 years of democracy. He said he was challenged to discover personal reconciliation and healing within this context. "I will go home with a lot of experience," he said. 

Many participants cited a growing understanding of each other's religious traditions as a major benefit of the conference. The group traveled to a downtown Greek Orthodox church, where they were given the opportunity to ask questions. For many, this was their first exposure to Orthodoxy.

During the pre-conference, participants began developing ecumenical projects for implementation when they return home. These projects will focus on such issues as HIV/AIDS and globalization, and will include youth workshops and exchanges between churches.

Although it is the WCC's goal to have 25 percent youth involvement in all its activities, fewer than 10 percent of the main conference delegates are young people. Natalie Maxson, a WCC youth program executive, said she was worried that the perspectives of youth could be marginalized as a result.

"As a young person working with youth, I find that it is a constant battle to make space for the voices of youth to be heard," she said, adding her hope that connections built at the pre-conference event will enable those attending the conference to have a much stronger voice than if they were to attend individually.

 Noting that stewards are not merely volunteers but participants in the conference, Maxson said she believes it is "the responsibility of older delegates to get to know these young people, and to support them in their work, here and back home."

She said the pre-conference youth event was a chance to "plant seeds."

"You don't necessarily see the fruit that develops immediately," she said.

Maxson said cooperation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians is one of the fruits of "this process — an ecumenical process that continues long past this conference."