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NCC and CWS General Assembly
adjourns in a spirit of 'New Fire'

Denver, November 13, 2008 -- The annual General Assembly of the National Council of Churches USA and Church World Service adjourned with a celebration of the past 100 years in ecumenism and a renewed hope that the future of this communion of communions is bright.

The optimistic spirit of the General Assembly was sparked before it began by a gathering of young adult ecumenists called "New Fire," and continued following a closing celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Federal Council of Churches.

Presiding over the meeting is H.E. Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, President of the National Council of Churches and the General Assembly as well as chair of the NCC Governing Board. The General Assembly agenda and program was developed by a planning committee chaired by Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, Chicago.

Dr. Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York and Professor of Religion at Columbia University, addressed the opening session of the Assembly on "Remembering 100 years and anticipating the future." (See story)

Bible studies were led by Dr. Rodney Sadler, Associate Professor of Bible at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Charlotte, N.C., and Dr. Despina Prassas, Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College, R.I.

Assembly delegates and visitors cheered speeches and bible studies alike and were moved by worship services in the Baptist and Orthodox traditions. They passed resolutions on immigration reform, the United Nations Human Rights Covenants and calling for an end to the persecution of Christians in India. They also called on the executive committees of the NCC and CWS to speak out on the current worldwide financial crisis.

The delegates also enthusiastically affirmed the young adult New Fire event and asked the NCC Governing Board to consider the creation of a young adult ministries position on the NCC staff. They also referred to the NCC Governing Board a proposal by the Racial Ethnic Caucus to devise a vehicle for working more closely with international ecumenical bodies, including the creation of a common calendar for worldwide ecumenical events and a Website to provide links to other ecumenical bodies.

Noting numerous messages of good will that member communions have received from international colleagues on recent events in the U.S., including the recent presidential election, the delegates asked NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon and CWS Executive Director John McCullough to prepare a letter "expressing gratitude for their concern over our election process and affirming our continued concern for the social and political contexts in which they minister."

Racial Justice

The Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, brought the General Assembly to its feet with his rousing sermon on race in America.

Moss, who succeeded the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as pastor of the church, alluded to the media frenzy involving Wright because of his relationship with President-Elect Barack Obama, who resigned his membership at Trinity amid the controversy.

"I am happy and thankful the election is over," Moss said. "We no longer see cameras hanging out of the balcony."

Moss compared the Obama's historic election to the succession of leadership from Moses to Joshua in Joshua 1:1.

The election was "a very powerful moment, a very unique moment," Moss said. "But it was also a very dangerous moment." 

"What is unique about this moment," he said, "is the reaction around the world. As I watched brothers and sisters in Obama, Japan shout for joy about the new president, I saw cheering Aboriginals in Australia, people in France and Germany, people in Israel shouting 'Barack,' which means, praise the Lord."

But Moss said he was also disturbed by the reaction because this is a dangerous moment in history.

"Pundits said now all of this racism is over," he said. "Every station we turned to said as a result of a person kissed by natureís sun in the Oval office, racism is over. We are in a post wilderness moment -- but we have yet to move into the promised land. And the most dangerous thing an individual can do is confuse the promised moment with the promised land. It is in the in-between that we must be careful."

One of the most dangerous times in history is to live in the in-between moment, Moss said. "Joshua has the youth and wherewithal to step into the Promised Land, but you canít celebrate when an individual crosses over. You have to make sure that those who donít have the same economic or education level are able to cross over into the promised land. Success is not defined individually, it is defined collectively."

Like Joshua, Barack Obama owes his success to the courage and determination of generations who went before him," Moss said.

"Living in a Joshua moment means we should never forget the Moses generation. This moment did not just fall out of the sky, this did not just happen overnight. There were people of the Moses generation who sacrificed so that this moment would be possible. As collective history, a history of struggle. We stand on the shoulders of those who have allowed us to be where we are."

"We as a community of faith cannot be satisfied so long as 40 million are without healthcare, so long as we see a drop-out rate of 50 percent, so long as there is illiteracy," he said. "We cannot be satisfied as a church 'til maybe one day when we will see justice role down like a river, beat our swords into plow shares, see lions living with lambs, know that every child who is hunger can be fed, when we can literally be a perfect union. There is a crown above out heads that one day we will be tall enough to wear."

Immigration Reform

With some amendments, the General Assembly endorsed a resolution on immigration reform that had been approved by the boards of the NCC and Church world Service. The resolution calls on the President and the Congress to protect the unity of immigrant families by making family reunification a priority, and to "facilitate generous laws enabling immigration by individuals who seek to work the United States," ensure full protection of rights, and end mass, indiscriminate immigration raids on places of employment.

Earlier, the Assembly had heard a speech by Frank Sharry, founder and Executive Director of America's Voice, the new communications campaign to win common-sense immigration reform.

"Immigrants are subject to the largest detention program the federal government runs," said Sharry, former director of the National Immigration Forum. "We have 4,000 people who were just driving while brown being stopped and exported. It amounts to non-violent ethnic cleansing."

Media pundits and publicity savvy politicians have convinced well-intentioned people that immigrants are dangerous, Sharry said. "All you have to do is turn on the radio to hear the villainy: immigrants are criminals, they are 'them" out to take from 'you.'" The result is the fear of mothers and fathers who leave their house every day thinking they might be arrested and never see their families again. There are 14,000 immigrant children who have lost their parents because of U.S. law enforcement."

Anti-immigration forces are successful because they are well-organized, strong and triumphalistic, Sharry said. "But many of them went down to defeat in the last election.

Ecumenical Phobias

A panel discussion Wednesday morning explored the "phobias" that keep individual communions from working together. The panel consisted of Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, Greek Orthodox Church and General Assembly Program Committee Chair; the Rev. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Bishop Ronald M. Cunningham of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; and Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Bishop Demetrios noted that Orthodox fears of ecumenical involvement stem in part from the fact that Orthodox are often immigrants or oppressed minorities, and by misunderstandings -- outside and inside Orthodoxy -- about Orthodox monasticism, as well as views of "doctrinal purity and canonical exactness."

Demetrios said Orthodoxy in the West and in traditional homeland is coming to terms with a new world. "Orthodox would be well-served to admit this coming to terms, but partners should respect the otherness," he said. "Respect for otherness is the first step toward love in action."

Watkins said Disciples consider themselves as quintessential ecumenists, "but it turns we have our phobias. Our actual living of unity has not been as good as our claim of unity. Disciples have a fear of uniformity. Fear someone is going to tell us how to act. A fear of hierarchy. Instead of our premium on all believers, a fear someone will tell us how to worship, a fear of a test of fellowship. A fear that in unity someone will tell us how to think."

Unity in Christ, Watkins said, "is so much a gift that we cannot create it by undoing our differences."

The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church came into existence "as a result of the movement from slavery to freedom," Bishop Cunningham said. Many CME's find it difficult "to reconcile our different worship expressions which were forged out of our existential living conditions. Unless you have been oppressed by the color of your skin you have no idea what itís like to be stopped for DWB (driving while black)."

1.      Cunningham said, "The scourge of silent racism that lives in many of us and  is unknown to us and only raises its head when something elicits a response. What would you really do? We must talk it out but we must make it incarnational. Still in the U.S., Sunday morning is the most segregated hour we experience."

BishBishop Hanson said much ecumenical phobia stems from "The fear of our dying. It's not death we so much fear as the process of dying. We've heard that we live in the post-denominational age, which means we have either missed our death or we are in hospice care and donít have very good chaplains. We're also aging. We are predominantly white in a richly pluralistic culture. We have come to believe in the premature announcement of the death of denominations and we are beginning to act like we are dying. The process of dying depletes ecumenical imagination. We ask our ecumenical partners, 'What have you done for us lately?'"

100 Years of Working and Praying Together

The General Assembly concluded Thursday night with a celebration of 100 eventful years since the founding of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908,

The celebration was led by the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, NCC President Elect. Featured speakers were former NCC presidents Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr. and the Rev. Michael Livingston, and The Rev. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The Rev. William F. Fore, retired head of National Council of Churches communications, described bygone accomplishments of the NCC, notably the ecumenical challenge of the Federal Communication Commission license of a segregated television station, WLBT, in Jackson, Miss. The action had been spearheaded by the Rev. Everett C. Parker, then head of United Church of Christ communications.

"This was the first and only time a TV station has ever had its license revoked," Fore said. "And it was a decision that was heard around the entire nation. Every TV station realized they had to begin to seriously meet the interests of their minority publics, or risk losing their license."

Pointing to the proliferation of television programming purported to be news but clearly biased efforts to entertain, Fore suggested ecumenical efforts to restore the airwaves to the public are needed more than ever. "These are actions that no single denomination can achieve alone.  But they are all actions that have tremendous support from ordinary people in the pews.  It would be ecumenism in action."


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228, NCCnews@ncccusa.org

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