Starpoint youth festival, there is a reason for being here.

Budapest, Starpoint

Budapest, Starpoint


On Sunday, 21 July I arrived in Budapest, Hungary to join a group of about thirty young people from nine different countries. We all came to join the “Csillagpont” (Hungarian for Starpoint) festival organized and held by the Reformed Church of Hungary. The festival is held in Mezőtúr and very well known in Hungary with over 4000 Hungarians joining the fifth Starpoint festival it truly promises to be a mind blowing event.
On Monday morning all of the international participants met in a very suitable place, in front of the Church where Calvin used to preach during his time in Budapest. We had a wonderful guided tour of Budapest and got to know one another better.
It is wonderful to spend time with young people from all over the globe sharing our visions, ideas and experiences. I am here to represent the Dutch Reformed Church from South Africa and it is a great privilege to be the first South African to be associated with the Starpoint festival.
We travelled from Budapest to Mezőtúr today and the train ride was filled with enthusiasm and excitement about finally getting to the long awaited festival. On the station we were welcomed by a group playing some traditional Hungarian music. Unfortunately some of the excitement was soon gone after standing outside of the entrance gates for about an hour and a half waiting for the registration process to be finalized so that we could settle in.
Even though the waiting was very frustrating, I had to remind myself that we are human beings and we are living in an imperfect world with structures and systems formed and shaped by us and sometimes only understood by some of us. At some stage the system works and then we should appreciate it and maybe adapt it, but that is a part of life.
At 19h00 the opening worship service took place and it was brief but strong. The preacher reminded everybody of the reasons we are here and the different things that has an effect on our coming to the festival, he read Psalm 90 and spoke about some things that we can control and others that we can’t. The first thing that came to my mind was the waiting in front of the gate. Even though the preachers sermon was about God’s plan for our being here, there was a different sermon awaiting me.
I realized that that being so busy all the time thinking about changing structures and systems is stealing a lot of my valuable time. All the time that we stood in front of the gate I was focused on the problem and how I would have had something in place to make it better. Instead I could have used the time getting to know the people who are here with me. The sermon for me was more about the importance of living and absorbing the moment rather than missing it. I had to remind myself about a sermon that I once heard about rather regretting what you did that doing nothing.
This Starpoint festival certainly has the potential to change a lot of lives, renew a lot of beliefs and change a lot of minds. I am certainly looking forward to seeing the “Places of epiphany” where human hearts and minds meet’s with our Triune God and something unexplainable (for our limited human languages) happens. I am sure that there is a special meeting awaiting every participant.

God of life lead Africa to peace, justice and dignity.

AACCThis was the theme of the 50th Jubilee assembly of the All Africa Conference of Churches held at Munyonyo Conference centre in Uganda, Kampala. Being sent as a youth delegate was an eye opening and a very interesting experience. I had to learn very quickly that even though I am from Africa, I have a lot to learn from my fellow Africans and that we have a lot of differences. It was important for me to be included and not left behind and that was something that really happened naturally. I really felt like I knew the people in the group for years and we could easily have conversations about church and the situation in Africa.

I was truly touched to experience that all of the youth has two very important things in common. Firstly that we are very passionate about our continent and the challenges we are experiencing and secondly that there is no way that we are going to let this challenges break the unity between us, but we will rather stand united against it.

Another important thing that I realized is that as part of the youth, but also the whole conference we need to listen very closely to one another. At the beginning of the meeting I was very focused on raising my voice and making sure that I get heard, but as the meeting progressed I realized the importance of all the voices. We talked about dignity and that obviously raised some questions about the way women and youth are treated at the meeting. Unfortunately I have to admit that there is still some challenges in this area and leaps would need to made in the church if we want to be true to ourselves and relevant in the 21st century.

The youth delegates sang a song saying “It starts with me” and I was well and truly challenged to stop talking about what is going on and to change my ways of thinking and doing before I go and try to change other people. The challenge for the church is well and truly to start changing and challenging the systems on ground levels, unfortunately the church and the church leaders is sometimes ignoring our own problems and tries to overshadow it by pointing fingers.

For now the finger will be pointing to me and I will try my best and clean my own house before talking and pointing towards the other.

African Conference of Reformed Churches VIVA.

From the 30th of May to the 2nd of June I had the privilege of attending and working at the African Conference of Reformed Churches in Kampala, Uganda. We had some wonderful experiences in and outside of the meeting. We had a wonderful time visiting the poor and rich sides of the city and experiencing the friendliness of the Ugandan people. We were also impressed with the cleanness of the streets and the people cleaning it with a very friendly and good attitude.

The meeting of about forty passionate delegates from different Reformed denominations in Africa addressed the theme “God of life, lead Africa to peace, justice and dignity”. Having so many people who are passionate about their religion and the well being of their continent in one room can be a very challenging situation. When one only keeps in mind that most of these delegates comes from different backgrounds speaks different languages and have different cultures it can truly be a challenge.

When reflecting on the meeting now one day after all of the proceedings I must admit that one can only thank God for the wonderful spirit and enthusiastic fashion in which the meeting took place.

I must share one wonderful story which I believe changed the whole atmosphere of the meeting in an exceptional way to a more inclusive vibe in the meeting.

After the opening worship service one of the delegates, Prof. Jean-Samuel Hendje Toya raised a serious concern regarding the exclusive use of English language in which the meeting is taking place. Everybody was stunned with silence as nobody really had an easy answer to his question. The local committee apologized and said that they would have made some efforts to get a translator but getting a French/English translator in Kampala is a big challenge. Prof. Toya offered to translate everything to French from English and from French into English for the delegates in the meeting. The acting President (At that stage, later got confirmed as President) of the meeting Lydia Adajawah suggested that the French speaking delegates should sit between bilingual delegates and then everything can be translated for them. The suggestion was based on previous experiences and efficiency.

The participants decided that this was a very important matter for the meeting and that they needed to open the floor for discussions. After some discussions the meeting decided that if they want to be a Communion who includes everyone and wants to give everyone a valid and equal voice it is important to have all of the proceedings translated to French.

It was a wonderful experience to see how people used their mother tongue and could confidently speak their thoughts because they were not afraid of being misunderstood.
I was amazed by how much emphasis and sensitivity were focused on understanding one another and communicating with clarity. I appreciated the fact that the Communion could really make their views and beliefs practical in their acts during this meeting.
When I left the Green Valley hotel today I realized that everybody is truly leaving with a great and positive heart and a lot of new energy. In this meeting a lot of positive steps were made and the delegates got a lot closer to one another. I am blessed to say that I left today with 33 new sisters and brothers in Africa and that we will certainly support and I will keep supporting one another for the betterment of the continent.

Even though I am very positive I must be realistic and would keep on reminding myself and my sisters and brothers in the communion that we still have a lot of challenges. Among them is including other languages such as Portuguese in our communication set up in the near future.

Frans du Plessis

Presbyterian minister is to coordinate response to “evangelism emergency” in northern Ghana

Saa
Northern Ghana is a major mission priority for WCRC’s two Ghanaian member churches: the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Ghana (EPCG) and the Presbyterian Church in Ghana (PCG).

In a presentation last Monday night in Dodowa, near Accra, those of us attending WCRC’s Executive Committee meeting heard the situation in the country’s remote northern region described as an « evangelism emergency. »

Solomon Sule Saa of the PCG is in the frontline of responding to the needs of the sparsely populated area where a high level of illiteracy and potential conflict between the Muslim majority and Christian minority challenge the churches. Eighty per cent of the region’s population is Muslim, 20 per cent is Christian.

Saa is originally from the region and has clear ideas about what the church can contribute to developing a stable and peaceful environment in which the economy can grow.

The minister currently serves PCG as its Ecumenical and Social Relations Officer as well as heading the Interfaith Centre in Accra and the Youth Peace programme. His attention is focussed on church youth throughout the country. But the problems of young people in the north are a special concern. Many of the young are leaving for the south of the country in order to find work. The youth that remain in the region are confronted with challenging situations where there is real potential for violence, especially in the lead-up time to elections.

Older people are left alone to look after themselves and their dwindling congregations. They struggle to pay their minister’s salary. Some clergy go for months with no pay. There is a pressing need for adequate church buildings and manses. Large distances between the communities further complicate the situation. Ministers often serve more than 10 parishes that are far apart. Transportation is a problem as the parishes are so poor that it is not always possible for their minister to have a car, meaning he or she must rely on public transport or travel by bike or on foot. It is hardly surprising that few ministers want to serve in the north!

There are two million northerners living in southern Ghana. The PCG has recognized their presence and begun reaching out with literacy programmes, help in seeking employment, and the formation of new congregations to serve them. Congregations of northerners who are living in the south hold services in their mother tongue and draw on their own cultural contexts. There are now 80 congregations of northerners living in the south that are served by six ministers.

In an effort to meet the need for evangelism in the north, PCG has launched “Operation Go Back”. Saa says the PCG programme encourages northern youth who have become Christian in the south to go home to tell people about what Jesus has done for them. To assist them, the church mobilizes resources to support ten days of mission in the north.

Saa is taking his own support for the north even further. This September he will take on a new position as Chairperson of Northern Presbytery. “It is like being a bishop”, one young church member told me with admiration.

The region clearly needs a person to encourage those who have stayed in the north and help them meet the many needs of their churches and communities. In short, it will be Saa’s role to coordinate response to the “evangelism emergency.”

Saa and his young family will be in our prayers as he takes on this mission. With his deep faith, calm authority and communication skills he is a leader who is up to the challenge.

Photo: Photography service of the Office of the President of Ghana

Ghana’s Emmanuel Tettey: from economy student to interfaith and peace trainer

TetteyEmmanuel Tettey studied economics at university but now finds himself working for a church-run interfaith centre and a peace programme for youth. Both are initiatives of the Presbyterian Church in Ghana (PCG) one of WCRC’s two Ghanaian member churches.

I met Emanuel when he served as the lead Steward for the recent meeting of WCRC’s executive committee in Dodowa, Ghana. His role was to work with WCRC’s senior administrative assistant from Geneva, Ida Milli, to train seven stewards and manage their schedules throughout the 12-day meeting from May 5-17.

Emanuel impressed WCRC’s leadership with his ability to remain calm and focused while finding solutions to the changing and complex needs of a group of 60 people from more than 20 countries.

While eating a boxed lunch on Thursday as we perched on the edge of a raised walkway in a shopping mall, Emanuel told me how it was that he found himself working full-time for the church.

It all began with him accepting an offer in 2010 to serve for six months as an ecumenical youth volunteer in Baden, Germany in a programme organized by Evangelical Mission in Solidarity (EMS).

When Emmanuel returned to Ghana from Germany, it was time for him to do the year of compulsory national service that all Ghanaian youth are required to complete. He chose an assignment working with Solomon Sule Saa who heads PCG’s Interfaith Centre and its Youth Peace Programme. His year of service that began in October 2010 has stretched to nearly three years.

Along the way he has served as a steward at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation of the World Council of Churches held in 2011 in Jamaica. It was that experience that brought him to WCRC’s attention.

The years with the PCG have been full. At the Interfaith Centre, Emmanuel plans and organizes seminars and conferences for dialogues that are designed to meet the needs of a range of target groups within Muslim and Christian communities. Discussion is now beginning about whether to develop such programmes for Christians and members of Ghana’s traditional (or spiritualist) faith.

Christian-Muslim marriages are the focus of a PCG study that is currently underway. Mixed faith marriages are common in the north. The church is doing research into how people in the region perceive them. The objective is to document experiences of mixed faith marriages on which to base a manual for clergy who must counsel young couples who are considering mixed faith marriage as well as those who are already married and encountering difficulties.

Training young people to be peacemakers is the other key component of Emmanuel’s work. He cites the example of a project supported by EMS to train youth in the north in peaceful conflict resolution in the period prior to Ghana’s December 2012 elections. There is also a growing network of Peace Clubs in parishes and church-run schools. Club members are trained to promote a “culture of peace” in their schools and neighbourhoods. The programme is set to expand into the state-funded school system.

Junior and senior secondary school students who join Peace Clubs are offered lectures and essays on the theme of “peace” and learning through role-playing. A professor from the School of Performing Arts at the University of Ghana, Legon has been asked to help prepare dramas for the programme with a message of peace.

Emmanuel’s director, Saa, sees young people as “the foot soldiers who are trying to prevent efforts to mobilize for violence.” Saa believes they are the ones to convince their peers that there is a better way to resolve conflict than through violence. If young people in Ghana’s north do not take that message to heart, he says: “Young people will be the biggest losers. They have their whole future before them. If they destroy their future, they won’t find jobs. So it is in their interest to have a stable country. When the country is peaceful there will be development and jobs,” he explains.

Photo: WCRC/Greenaway

Seth Agidi: a busy Ghanaian ecumenist with a wide-ranging mandate

    Agidi

    The Ecumenical and Social Relations Secretary for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Ghana (EPCG) is a busy man. Seth Agidi’s church is involved in a wide range of social justice initiatives that are grounded in the belief that WCRC’s Accra Confession calls EPCG’s congregations to action in response to social and environmental concerns.

    The Confession was drafted by one of WCRC’s founding organizations, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, at its General Council meeting in Accra, Ghana in 2004. The document says Christians must challenge systemic abuse of poor and marginalized people and the over-consumption of the earth’s natural resources.

    Agidi’s job includes ensuring that EPCG’s partners are aware of his church’s commitment to Christian nurture and social justice. He tells them about the church’s offer of spiritual resources, stress counselling, and healing centres that double as retreat centres. He points to EPCG programmes that range from establishing activity centres for school dropouts to developing agricultural training centres to running a university, theological seminary and clinics. Church projects respond to the needs of people (clergy and lay) affected by the HIV and AIDS pandemic, as well as those of street children, drug abusers, and women.

    Agidi sees this work as a way to “evangelize people while improving the conditions of their lives.”

    The loss of agricultural land that missionaries had procured poses a growing challenge for rural communities. Increasingly, that land is being taken over and farmers displaced. Climate change too is a concern – one that the church is addressing in part through establishing “Eco Clubs” for school children.

    As if Agidi’s life weren’t busy enough, he was on the local planning committee for the recent meeting of WCRC’s executive committee in Dodowa. EPCG is one of WCRC’s two Ghanaian member churches (the other being the Presbyterian Church in Ghana). The two churches combined resources to host the 12-day event from 5-17 May.

    Organizing the local programme for the committee and supporting the full range of needs of 60 people from over 20 countries was a challenge. But Agidi’s experience in his diverse portfolio has prepared him well for the challenge. He rose to every occasion, including playing a role in handling the logistics and overcoming the obstacles to arranging a visit by a WCRC delegation with the President of Ghana immediately following the conclusion of the executive committee meeting.

    Doubtless Agidi is sighing in relief now that the last of the committee members have left Ghana. However, now his equally busy daily routine will resume and he will be off once again on a round of visits and meetings on behalf of his church. He will carry with him the gratitude of WCRC.

    Photo: WCRC/Greenaway

Overcoming historical resentment

Yong-Kyu Kang (left) and Yoshi Fujimori (rights) (Photo: WCRC/Greenaway)

Yong-Kyu Kang (left) and Yoshi Fujimori (rights) (Photo: WCRC/Greenaway)

This blog posting is an excerpt of a Biblical reflection given by Yoshi Fujimori at the meeting of the Executive Committee of the World Communion of Reformed Churches that is underway in Dodowa, Ghana.

We’ve created thick walls between each other, like the ones we used to have in Berlin, or one we still have in the Middle East, and we all think, or put it more stronger terms, we all know that these walls are impossible to be removed. But here we are together in front of God.

Think of the story of the slaves held in Elmina Castle here in Ghana. Did those slaves who were in the life of death situation in the dungeon have a slightest idea, that there would come a time when their descendants and the descendants of those who were worshipping God in the chapel above completely indifferent of the situation below them would joined together, sitting next to each other worshipping God together?

Allow me to make it more personal. When we think of the history of my country (Japan) and Rev. Yong-Kyu Kang’s country (South Korea), I probably won’t be allowed to sit next to Rev. Kang. There are still many Koreans who have strong sentiment against Japanese for the things our country and our church had done to them before and during the Second World War. So, it is quite easy and probably natural for him to kick me out, and say, “Hey I don’t want to be with you.”

Actually as a senior member of the Northeast Asia Area Council, he occasionally gives me his fraternal kicks, but that’s the other story. But through the communion of the WCRC, in particular through the communion of the Northeast Asia Area Council, our church, the Church of Christ in Japan, gave a chance to confess our sins against our neighboring sisters and brothers and we were reconciled. Now our church became the partner church with Presbyterian Church of Korea, Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea, Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, and Korean Christian Church in Japan, serving together for the God’s mission in northeast Asia. How amazing and how joyful it is.

Our story isn’t a unique story but we have similar stories like ours among our member churches in WCRC and we’re seriously hoping that this is going to spread through the world, particularly for the areas where conflict and violence prevail.

Fight for the right to have a proper passport: missionary’s advice prompts involvement in Vanuatu independence movement

Allen Nafuki, Vanuatu (Photo: WCRC/Greenaway)

Allen Nafuki, Vanuatu (Photo: WCRC/Greenaway)

In 1974 Allen Nafuki and several friends left Vanuatu to study in New Zealand. But when they arrived, they were detained by immigration authorities because the colonial administrators in Vanuatu had refused to issue them with passports. Instead the young would-be students were travelling with a simple form printed on white paper. When they were released by the authorities, a missionary from the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand greeted them with a message: “Hi boys. If you want a proper passport, fight for it.”

Nafuki didn’t forget the missionary’s words. He realized the situation had to change. He was a native of Vanuatu yet the colonial administrators did not grant him full citizenship rights.  Nafuki and others became active in a campaign for self-determination–the right to decide whether to create their own country or remain under colonial rule. The movement had the support of the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu.

The campaign led to the creation of an independent country on 30 July 1980. There were so many Presbyterian ministers elected to parliament that Nafuki says with a laugh that a meeting of Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu looked like a meeting of parliament. He himself is a pastor who has served two eight year terms as an elected member of parliament.

Nafuki told the story of his arrest and of how a missionary’s words helped spark the country’s independence movement during a sermon preached for WCRC’s executive committee today. The committee is meeting in Dodowa, Ghana this week.

I learned much about Vanuatu from the sermon. I had not known, for example, that from 1906 until 1980, the country had two separate linguistic jurisdictional entities: French and English.  There were hospitals, schools and police for each language group. Nafuki provoked laughter from executive committee members when he pointed out that this meant that an English police officer couldn’t arrest a French drunkard as it was not in the officer’s jurisdiction.

The visit of the executive committee to Elmina Castle (an infamous site of the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries) earlier in the week made Nafuki think about the impact of foreign businesses on a country and its cultures, he says. In 1961 the Dutch arrived with guns and took over the village of Jaiabura. The objective was to profit from mining in the area.  Fifty years later the community is still fighting for its full independence.

Nafuki sums up the story of his country by saying it seems that Vanuatu could be called a Fourth World country. (The term refers to a common designation of nations according to their economic model: the First World being countries with capitalist economies, the Second World having socialist or centrally-planned economies, and the Third World being countries with “emerging” or “developing” economies.) My understanding of Nafuki’s comments is that his country has a distinctive form of colonialized economy, thus making it a Fourth World country.

The Vanuatan pastor concluded his sermon with a metaphor. We live in a world that is like water, he says. “Let us dive. Not just to see. But let us dive to catch those who are oppressed and bring them to the Kingdom of God.”

“God is calling us to be on the move”: Jerry Pillay, WCRC President

JerryPillayDodowa“God calls us to do something new, to embrace something new,” WCRC President, Jerry Pillay told WCRC executive committee members and staff in a sermon today. Pillay was preaching at the opening service of the executive committee meeting that got underway yesterday in Dodowa in the greater Accra region of Ghana.

The South African church leader was speaking in reference to the committee’s decision in 2013 to approve a move of the organization’s offices from Geneva, Switzerland to Hannover, Germany, a move that is set to happen in January 2014.

“To do this we need to release ourselves into the life and power of the Holy Spirit,” Pillay said in a sermon delivered at Immanuel Congregation, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. “To follow God’s will takes conviction, courage, and commitment.”

“There is a thin line between what God wants and what I want,” Pillay told the worshippers who included members of local congregations, clergy from the two host churches, and members of the executive committee, consultants, spouses, advisors and guests. “We must learn to pray: ‘not my will but thine be done.’”

Tears gathered by Canada’s aboriginal people for sacred healing fire

I was one of hundreds of people shedding tears yesterday morning in a meeting room of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada. We had gathered for a hearing of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission into abuse at church-run residential schools for aboriginal children.

A soft-spoken woman was testifying to her experience as a young child in a residential school in western Canada in the 1960’s. We were hushed, hanging on her every word with a mounting sense of dread. When she paused after describing her arrival at the school and began to cry into a handful of paper tissues, I knew what was coming. I braced myself as she drew a shaky breath and revealed the horror at the heart of her story with the simple words: “In my dreams years later, I could see a dark figure coming to me in the night.” The dark figure raped her on four separate occasions. She was not yet 12 years old.

She never saw his face during his night time attacks but his dark presence haunted her dreams for years until her husband could take it no longer and left.

For most of her life she has battled depression but because she has seen the ravages of alcohol and drugs on her mother – herself a survivor of a residential school – she has not sought refuge there. Instead, as an adolescent she withdrew into the prolonged sleep of deep depression. Finally the dreams that came to haunt her adult years drove her into therapy where she says she is making some progress. Testifying at the hearing was an important step in the healing process she told us: she felt that telling the story would get it out of her.

TRC volunteers stood by to gather up my tear-soaked tissues and mingle them with hers and with those collected at the four previous TRC hearings in other parts of Canada. When the hearings conclude in 2014, the tissues will be placed in a “sacred fire”. I hope the flames will cast light on the shadows of our churches’ history and release the tears for our collective healing.

Kristine Greenaway