02.09.09 09:56 Age: 3 yrs

Youth seek meaningful ecumenical engagement


Geneva  Switzerland

Diana Fernandes dos Santos
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by Walt Wiltschek (*)


Young people have spent years knocking at the door of the World Council of Churches, seeking greater involvement in the life of the organization. In the past few years, that door has opened further.


The drive for more significant inclusion grew following the 2006 WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, when delegates affirmed the creation of a new body to communicate with and coordinate the involvement of youth (defined as those age 30 and under) in the life of the WCC. More than 700 youth participated in that assembly.


Out of that came Echos – Commission on youth in the ecumenical movement, a group of 25 youth drawn from a wide range of churches and other ecumenical youth organizations. The name of the commission is drawn from the Greek word for “sound”, signifying its desire to send the waves of its voices rippling into the future of ecumenism.


Echos held its first meeting in May 2007, and it has continued to build. Four working groups have been developed: collaboration with the WCC, networking with the wider ecumenical movement, ecumenical formation and communications.


“When we held our first meeting, we were full of expectations and ideas, and full also of fears” of the challenges ahead, said Diana Fernandes dos Santos of Brazil, who serves as moderator of Echos. “Now we can see some progress in understanding what ecumenism means and what are the real opportunities where young people can participate in the WCC and the wider ecumenical movement.”


The youth are clear that they don’t want those opportunities to be token roles or involvement at the edges of organizational life. They want to be involved in significant, meaningful ways at the heart of the WCC’s work and in the world beyond.


“Establishment of Echos is a very good sign . . . of wanting to hear the voice of young people,” said Rev. Aaro Rytkönen, a youth member of the WCC Central Committee from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. “But it is not enough. Youth issues cannot be outsourced to a small group.”


Rytkönen noted that youth are gathering ecumenically on their own and will not wait for the WCC to catch up. He said the WCC needs to “take bold steps toward new ways of thinking” and working. Youth want to be engaged in specific issues, he said, and their unique experiences already give them specific knowledge and skills to offer.


WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia again affirmed the need to embrace those gifts in his address to Central Committee on 26 August. Kobia said youth have a “crucial role” to play in the discernment of the WCC’s future. After his address, he invited Fernandes to read a statement from Echos – one that urged a forward-looking vision.


“We are spending too much energy lamenting over budget cuts and for nostalgia of things past,” the statement said. “Instead, let us put our energy into a new vision for the future of the ecumenical movement in this changing world.” It challenged the WCC not simply to train the next generation “to be good central committee members” but to equip youth – and people of all generations – to engage the ecumenical movement, especially locally.


There have been positive steps. Ray Ranker, a student at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, USA and a member of the Echos commission, says that, on the whole, the WCC and its central committee “have been very receptive to our contributions … I feel the WCC has taken seriously the assembly’s commitment to youth.”


For example, youth have been placed on WCC “Living Letters” delegations to areas dealing with violence and are serving as members of various WCC commissions and committees. Others are involved in regional ecumenical movements, such as the “New Fire” young adult events in the US, scheduled to meet again in Minneapolis in November.


Ranker said he has encountered other youth, especially youth serving on central committee, who have expressed excitement at the new directions and greater opportunities to have their voice heard. The challenge now, Ranker said, is to reach out to those who aren’t already involved in the life of the WCC.


Echos plans to have a presence at various ecumenical gatherings, such as the 2010 Edinburgh conference on world mission, he said. It also hopes to have a website up by early next year and is developing an internal database that will help to match the gifts of youth around the world with the needs of the WCC.


“It’s about moving from the idea of having (a quota of youth participation) to how can youth be strong contributors, participating in the full life of the WCC,” Ranker says. “I think we really want to come to the next assembly (in 2013) and hopefully show our goals and the work we’ve done.”


In the meantime, Echos and the young people it represents will continue their quest to move fully into the centre of WCC activity. Ranker and Fernandes both said they will be reaching out to general secretary-elect Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, offering their support and their ideas. And they will continue to reach out to young people everywhere.


“We want to encourage people to be engaged and to contribute,” Fernandes said. “It’s not the time to advocate for space any more, but to solidify that space. Young people are all the time knocking at the doors. Now they are here. We need the WCC to say very clearly what we can do to help and how we can contribute and serve.”


(*) Walt Wiltschek is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren in the United States. He serves as editor of the denomination’s magazine, Messenger.



More information on Echos


More information on the WCC programme "Youth in the ecumenical movement: challenges and hopes"


More information on the Central Committee meeting