Christians from all continents and the largest confessional families gathered Wednesday for the third day of one of the largest gatherings of church representatives and mission organizations in the 21st century.
The 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME), held May 9-16 by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Athens, Greece, has called delegates from Orthodox, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches or mission bodies to recognize the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in all of them. Participants of the CWME include young people, women and men working at the frontiers of Christian witness, church and mission leaders, theologians and missiologists.
As this years conference coincides with the mid-point of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010), a special plenary on Thursday intended as a mid-term celebration was dedicated to the complex relationship between mission and violence.
The plenary began with a liturgical procession of symbols of violence brought to the altar by young people from various regions followed by an audio-visual presentation of the first half of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence. The short video-clip included the moment when a young German delegate to the Harare assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1998 made the initial proposal for the Decade to Overcome Violence.
Participants also heard personal testimonies witnessing to the ambivalent relationship between mission and violence.
"For us in Colombia [...] violence (or the sword) has been a constant companion to mission (or the cross)," stated Alix Lozano, a Mennonite pastor from Colombia whose testimony that had to be read in her absence because she was denied a visa to attend the conference.
Lozano believes that "mission" and "violence" are words that are almost interchangeable.
After the testimonies, the experiences such as those of Lozano's were reflected on by a round table with the participation of Janice Love, educator in political science and Methodist church leader from the USA, Tinyiko Maluleke, a leading African missiologist from South Africa, Janet Plenert, Executive Director of International Ministries, Mennonite Church Canada and Viola Raheb, Lutheran theologian and Christian educator from Palestine.
"We can't close our eyes to the violence that people suffer 24 hours a day, day after day," said Raheb, as reported by the WCC.
Describing the situation of the occupied Palestinian territories, she said "It's not enough that the churches name the causes of violence, but they have actively to address them with a nonviolent approach."
Maluleke, the Presbyterian missiologist from South Africa, told the gathering that "the Decade to Overcome Violence calls the churches to feel again, to become passionate about the issue of violence."
The missiologist reminded participants that this passion is rooted in the fact that "God's image is to be seen where humanity is most under attack."
As Lozano's written testimony had stated before: "The mission of God can be lived out in a context of violence" when Christians align themselves with "the intention of God, who always takes the side of the poor, the needy, the persecuted, the marginalized."
As lighted candles were brought to the stage by the same young people who first carried the symbols of violence, the gathering put the issue before God in prayer, and sang the theme of the conference: "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile."
Since Monday, daily plenary sessions have focused on the central elements of the CWMEs theme "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile" and the sub-theme "Called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities."
Over the next several days, CWME participants will continue exchange experiences and reflect on the priorities for mission and the future of Christian witness through plenary sessions and a number of "synaxeis" meetings a Greek term for a "gathering of people."
Aside from the plenary sessions, about 70 workshops will offer participants opportunities to discuss a wide variety of issues in depth. These range from experiences of multi-dimensional healing to mission in war and conflict situations; from the role of women in mission to the relationship between healing, salvation and conversion; from the missionary challenge that people living with HIV/AIDS pose, to the way that indigenous people approach reconciliation and healing.
In addition to being the first time such a conference was held in a predominantly Orthodox context, the Conference is also the first time that the conference plenaries will be broadcast live via the internet.
According to the WCC, there have been 12 such ecumenical mission conferences since 1910.