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By Heather Chappell
Women in brightly coloured saris eat breakfast with bearded men in flowing black robes. Lutherans compare ideas with Catholics. Orthodox exchange greetings of peace with Evangelicals. Participants in the Athens World Mission Conference have experienced the formation of a peaceful and accepting community.
In a divisive and increasingly violent world, the need for community is great, and lack of close relationships can lead to intolerance, discrimination, isolation and fear. The over 650 participants attending the World Council of Churches 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism have spent a week living out the Christian call to be in close community with one another, providing a working example of peace and tolerance.
The sub-theme of the May 9-16 conference, "Called in Christ to be healing and reconciling communities," is brought to life in a very real way. Daily workshops point to peace, trust, love, understanding, and unity as means of creating healing and reconciliation in today's world. Participants from over 100 countries and representing almost every Christian tradition consider what it means to live in community, and share stories from within their own particular backgrounds.
Quiet, intimate spaces
Amidst the busyness of workshops and presentations, there is a need for more quiet, intimate spaces. Small "home groups" help to strengthen the feeling of community that encompasses the conference. "It is important to have this kind of bonding on an individual level with other participants," says Paula Devejian, a delegate from the Holy See of Etchmiadzin (Armenian Apostolic Church).
Each morning, groups come together for Lectio Divina (Latin for "sacred reading"). These meditative Bible studies are a good way for delegates to prepare spiritually for the day ahead. Evening meetings are less structured, and provide an opportunity to reflect and to share stories and experiences of the day's events. Group members are encouraged to share their joys and disappointments in a non-judgemental and supportive environment.
Ron Wallace, associate secretary of international ministries for The Presbyterian Church in Canada, finds there to be a good balance of culture, gender and tradition within his group. He enjoys the opportunity to discuss world views with those from a variety of backgrounds and contexts. "In my group there are Catholics, Protestants and Coptic Orthodox from Europe, North America, and Africa. Everyone is very open-minded," he says. "By the second day, we were comfortable in accepting one another's diversity, and were able to discuss our wide variety of perceptions." Devejian adds that the bringing together of diverse cultures and denominations through biblical discussion gives her important insight into the thought processes and belief systems of others in her group.
The church is like a prism
Participants, who have seen their home groups evolve into small communities, can take their experience back to their own churches and apply it to small group meetings within their own contexts.
Home group leader Fleur Dorrell, a Catholic working for the Church of England and a member of the Anglican Communion's lay organization Mothers' Union, feels that home groups facilitate the act of listening to one another, ensuring that the unique voice of each person is both expressed and heard.
"The church is like a prism," she says. "Each colour represents a different expression of faith. The beauty is in reflecting as many colours as possible." She goes on to say, "None of us understands God perfectly on our own. We need each other to help us understand and nourish our own faith."
In just one week, conference participants have come together in community, creating a space where cultural, denominational, and spiritual differences unite rather than divide. In this way, they provide an important model to churches world-wide, and confirm that it is possible to live together as one people - a diverse family centred in the community of God's love. [682 words]
(*) Heather Chappell is a writer from Toronto, Ontario. She works as programme assistant for The Presbyterian Church in Canada in the areas of stewardship and mission education.
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