t’s a lovely gesture on a lovely evening—the kind of symbolic statement that the World Council of Churches is fond of making. But when Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu and Adolfo Perez Esquivel step off tonight in a WCC-sponsored “Walk for Peace” through this city of 1.5 million, they could be forgiven for looking over their shoulders every now and again.
Porto Alegré, Brazil (“happy port”), site of this year’s 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, cannot be called a peaceful place. Hotel concierges, bank personnel, and travel agents warn American visitors about walking major thoroughfares, even in broad daylight. “You must hold on to your bag very tight,” they say with evident concern when I propose to stroll six blocks through the city center in late morning to cash some travelers’ checks. “Someone may grab it from you.”
Stores, banks, schools, and private businesses are gated and fenced to a degree rarely seen in North American or European cities. House windows are barred on all but the most primitive dwellings up through at least the second level. Fear of violent gangs and petty criminals pushes life too much indoors, away from the city’s generous parks and green spaces.
But the WCC was probably not thinking much about Porto Alegré when it organized tonight’s “Walk for Peace.” Focused primarily on international issues and geopolitical concerns, this oldest Christian ecumenical organization is thinking of places such as Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iraq, and Palestine when it speaks of peace. Other entities—humanitarian groups, NGOs (non-government organizations), local congregations, civic associations—are the ones who must wrestle with the violence, both real and threatened, that changes the quality of people’s everyday lives in this place.
Put another way, it might be fair to say that the WCC would rather issue a major policy statement about water as “a fundamental human right at the local, national, regional, and international levels”—as it is doing at this Assembly—than to launch an initiative, say, to dig wells in sub-Saharan Africa. This “macro-issue” approach to compassion has earned the WCC the continuing criticism of many Christians who urge that actually delivering the cup of cold water in Jesus’ name is the better part.
All of this should not be construed to mean that symbolism is unimportant or a waste of time. The moral voice of Christians worldwide has sometimes helped to reform unjust state policies and stay the hands of despots, as Archbishop Tutu gratefully acknowledged in yesterday’s plenary session. But, in the end, compassion and peacemaking must have a local address, or they will drift off like gossamer into the balmy night air as soon as the march is over.
In other news . . .
Tuesday’s plenary session featured six speakers addressing the theme of both the day and the overall Assembly: “God, in Your Grace, Transform the World.” A riveting personal testimony of forgiveness and restoration was shared by Gracia Violeta Ross, a Bolivian woman living with HIV/AIDS. The ability of God’s grace to transform physical disabilities into spiritual giftedness was highlighted by a speaker afflicted with polio as a child. Other speakers addressed theological and personal aspects of transformation, while the final presenter, Dr. Namsoon Kang, reminded delegates that social and religious structures, including the World Council of Churches itself, must be transformed into flexible and humble entities for the accomplishment of God’s purposes.
Continuing delegate discomfort over the inability of the Nominating Committee to reflect the WCC’s commitment to 25 percent youth/young adult representation on the proposed Central Committee and equitably distribute seats among member churches resulted in a parliamentary maneuver at day’s end that sent the slate of candidates back to the Nominating Committee for yet another round of deliberation.