In the midst of the ongoing conversation in The United Methodist Church about division and potential split, I had the opportunity to spend most of the month of May in ecumenical dialogue and partnership around evangelism and discipleship. Despite our theological and historical differences, where are there places we can work together to share God’s love and provide a message of hope through our words and actions?
I began the month in Phoenix with the Directors of Evangelism from the mainline denominations in North America dreaming about our next joint projects and congregational resources. Next, I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, where twelve of us gathered from around the globe, representing many strands of Christianity (Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Mainline Protestant). During that meeting, we focused on evangelism from the margins, paying particular attention to those who find themselves in migrant, changing, or excluded communities. Finally, last week, I was in Dubai, working on drafting a paper for the World Council of Churches’ Global Mission Conference with twelve ecumenical brothers and sisters from around the globe. Because of the large airport and plethora of hotels, Dubai served as a central location for us to gather.
As I journeyed home from Dubai, I spent quite a bit of time in prayer and reflection on my past month’s work and the current state of the denomination to which I was returning and that I deeply love. I contemplated how, in two days, my subgroup (composed of a Syrian Orthodox bishop, a reformed pastor from Belgium, a representative from the Cook Islands Christian Church, and me) drafted a six-page document on contextualized discipleship, where all voices were heard and everyone contributed. Eighteen hours into my journey, I boarded my second flight from Toronto to Chicago and found myself sitting next to a Canadian who was traveling to Wisconsin to help his future daughter-in-law drive a U-Haul home from college.
I’ll admit, I was fairly exhausted at this point, but it was obvious that my seatmate was eager to chat. He asked about my travels, family, and work. He found it interesting that I was coming from a Christian church meeting held in an Islamic country. He was also curious about what it looked like to work for a church and how The United Methodist Church differed from Catholicism (the only branch of Christianity with which he had any familiarity). I shared a bit about Christianity’s family tree and how the Methodist movement began as an effort to reform the Church of England, intentionally reaching out to include everyone who would respond and methodically linking discipleship, mercy, and justice.
My new friend seemed to resonate with my explanation of a faith that wasn’t simply about head knowledge or intellectual assertions and that sought to reach out instead of build walls. At this point, I tried to shift the conversation and ask about his family and background. He said that his family was in the construction business in Toronto and had immigrated to Canada forty years ago from Albania to escape Communism. He then, a bit sheepishly, told me that he is Muslim. I asked about the Albanian community in the Toronto area and more about his family’s journey over the years. We both acknowledged the wrong perceptions that people often carry about both of our faiths and how different our world would be if we could all see one another as more than our labels and identities. As our plane landed at O’Hare and we eagerly checked for the update on my son’s baseball game, he offered, “I wish we could just see each other as humans, with families, hopes, dreams, and fears.”
“I wish we could just see each other as humans, with families, hopes, dreams, and fears.”
Over the past few days, his words have stuck with me. Reflecting on my work and travels in May, it was the appreciation for each person as a child of God and brother or sister in Christ that allowed us to dialogue and create together. It was the fellowship over meals, sharing pictures of our families, and being vulnerable with one another that quickly turned strangers from very different backgrounds into friends. At Discipleship Ministries, there is a new focus on #SeeAllthePeople. I think this is a good and important start for our congregations (and our denomination). We do need to start seeing who our neighbors are and take off whatever blinders we may have or assumptions we have made. And this is an investment; an investment of time, energy, and an openness to potentially be changed. For when this begins to happen, we are no longer just a Christian pastor and Muslim construction worker. We become the mom of an eight-year-old baseball player and the future father-in-law traveling to drive home a college graduate’s U-Haul.
*The document and study guide for the WCC Global Mission Conference is still in draft form, but will be made available as soon as possible.