PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Greek Orthodox lay theologian Nikos Nissiotis would have been torn, with the winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and the ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre occurring simultaneously.
Before his death, he was on the International Olympic Committee, and he was a former director of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, where I met him.
He was an ardent supporter of both, because both foster global ties beyond the usual political and other human boundaries.
While thousands of press representatives will cover the Olympics, I’m among about 100 press members covering the World Council of Churches Assembly, attending along with 700 delegates and 3,000 observers. Thousands more will join in the opening worship, workshops, encounters and displays.
Instead of being about competition, the assembly is about twice-daily worship, Bible study, program reports, decision-making and ecumenical dialogue.
That dialogue extends understanding beyond interpersonal encounters. It helps deepen a sense of cooperation, reconciliation, caring, stewardship and unity – a challenge to the economic globalization forces that impoverish so many people in the world. .
For many attendees, it’s their first assembly. For me, it’s my fourth. The preparatory materials were a review of what I seek to do as editor of The Fig Tree, a Spokane-based newspaper, keeping up with the local aspects of people engaged consciously or unconsciously in the ecumenical and interfaith movements through outreach to serve people in need, through working for justice and peace, through seeking to build relationships and understanding among the diverse people who live in our neighborhoods, communities and region.
Ecumenism is about more than church unity. It’s about people seeking to build respect and trust basic to healthy communities. While ecumenism – meaning God’s whole creation – is primarily Christian, it also incorporates and encourages inter-religious dialogue. It is based on the awareness that competitive religious faith is not appealing and is counter to the vision of working toward God’s shalom – peace, justice, health, wholeness and salvation.
Dialogue and encounters such as the assembly help people call each other to accountability to live by the values they profess.
In that context, the theme for the assembly is a prayer for just such change: “God, in your wisdom, transform the world.”
With the sports and faith-themed global gatherings occurring simultaneously, both will instill bonds that will cross the usual divides of nations, belief systems, cultures, languages, races, gender and economics.
Both events will lay seeds that will one day blossom beyond the scope of either event.
In coming columns, I will share experiences and encounters I have here in Porto Alegre to offer a glimpse into this global gathering.