Over the past few weeks, I have shared with you some of my experiences during my time at the World Council of Churches in Karlsruhe, Germany.
With 4000 participants, I met many people and formed some unexpected friendships that will remain with me for years to come. Having settled back into life in Belfast, I find myself constantly reflecting back on the richness of the diversity I encountered at WCC.
That diversity was highlighted from the start. In her opening speech, Moderator Dr Agnes Abuom, said “absolutely fundamental to the WCC and the ecumenical movement are relationships. That’s what makes experiences like the assembly so precious and formative. We encounter one another – in all our uniqueness – and recognise a neighbour in the stranger, unity in the midst of our diversity.”
That statement of recognising a neighbour in the stranger has stayed with me. How often are we suspicious of people who are different to us? That suspicion was vividly articulated to me by someone whom I met unexpectedly during my time at WCC. It was during my ecumenical weekend at the Black Forest, which I shared in my first blog, that I met Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee in his early twenties. His story touched me.
During the ecumenical weekend, when my host realised that I am Palestinian and speak Arabic, he said to me, “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” He introduced me to Ibrahim who has been renting a room in his home for the past 6 years. His story is one of heartbreak but incredible determination. Ibrahim was delighted to meet someone who spoke his language and understood his culture.
As the schedule of the WCC delegates was jam packed, the only chance that Ibrahim and I had to converse was on my run early in the morning. I am a very keen runner and my trainers go with me everywhere. Ibrahim kindly offered to show me a beautiful route along the river. I ran, he cycled, we talked and I learnt about his story. He shared with me his perilous journey, escaping the war in Syria at the age of 15 and crossing the border into Turkey. He had no money, nowhere to live and no one to turn to. He was ill–treated, taken advantage of, regarded as an outsider, a danger, and a threat. His older brother was an electrician and had taught him the trade. Ibrahim used those skills to get sporadic labour, until he made the dangerous journey to Germany. He has been there for 5 years, renting a small room, going to university and working as an electrician. His story was of human resilience but it contained so much sadness. He was a stranger often rejected, viewed with suspicion and unwelcomed.
Early morning run in the Black Forest
I couldn’t help make the comparison. Ibrahim is a similar age to my son Marcus. My son’s childhood and Ibrahim’s are so different. If we were raising our family in Syria, Marcus could be telling the same story as Ibrahim. That thought overwhelmed me.
After returning to Karlsruhe, and still thinking about Ibrahim and the way we often treat strangers, I found comfort in the speech of Archbishop Justin Welby. He talked about not allowing our cultural differences to separate us. He said that we should not exclude one another and try to live in the light of Christ.
I wish that everyone reading this will have some of the same uplifting experiences and friendship encounters that I was privileged to have at WCC. At a time where the brokenness of the world seems to be more palpable than ever, I found encouragement in the encounters I had at WCC. Welby’s call “not a unity of identity, but a unity of diversity in the richness of God’s creation,” has resonated with me. My time at WCC left me feeling strengthened and fortified. I pray that as Christians, we continue to reach out to strangers around us to build a unity in our diversity.
With Archbishop Welby at the 11th Assembly
ICC thanks Georgina for her reflections on the experience of attending the World Council of Churches. If you’d like to read parts 1 and 2 of this blog series you can click below.