Ecumenical Pilgrims

Come Join the Journey Toward New Moral and Global Horizons

Author Rev. Dr. Emily Welty

Author Emily Welty

As a New Yorker with no car, I walk a lot. I find myself evaluating a new pair of shoes based on the mileage I imagine clocking in them, and anytime I explore a new area of the city, figuring out the local transportation timetables is key. And yet I am also aware of all of the people for whom travel is neither a choice nor a pleasure. All of the people who are forced across borders to ensure their own survival or whose journeys begin with the decimation of the place they called home.

The central religious text that informs our faith as Christians gives us many examples of people on the move. From those wandering in the desert with Moses to the journey of Jesus’ parents, the Bible might be conceived of as a book of journeys.

Pilgrimage might be easily misunderstood as an exclusively private religious activity, without political implications. But the concept of pilgrimage has been powerfully used by nonviolent activists and is included in Gene Sharp’s list of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.

While different pilgrims may be called to different paths, the One doing the calling is the same. Pilgrims working for justice and peace may choose different landscapes, different methodologies, different areas of emphasis, but they should be united in their desire to be faithful to the one God who calls people out of complacency to the work of service.

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The central religious text that informs our faith as Christians gives us many examples of people on the move.
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The World Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization with 345 member churches (Orthodox and Protestant) in 110 countries, has been dedicated to addressing the most pressing current social justice issues through the lens of faith since its inception in 1948.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a member of the WCC, as are many of our sister Presbyterian churches worldwide.

Participants of the WCC Working Group on Climate Change on pilgrimage, Crete 2015.  Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC, Used with Permission

Participants of the WCC Working Group on Climate Change on pilgrimage, Crete 2015.
Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC, Used with Permission

Beginning in 2013, the WCC launched “A Pilgrimage Of Justice and Peace”, an initiative designed to engage in peace and justice focused activities on both a local and international level. This initiative was approved at the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea, in 2013, which was themed “God of Life, Lead Us to Justice and Peace”. WCC’s 2013 Unity Statement, which acknowledges both the difficulties and joys of ecumenism, offered this commitment for the journey ahead: “We will intensify our work for justice, peace, and the healing of creation, and address together the complex challenges of contemporary social, economic, and moral issues. We will work for more just, participatory, and inclusive ways of living together. We will make common cause for the well-being of humanity and creation with those of other faith communities. We will hold each other accountable for fulfilling these commitments.”

This set of goals tells us that pilgrimages are not just about end-points, but about being changed and transformed on the way. Travel can unite, and adventures can displace our familiar attachments. Ecumenism itself is not simply an external journey but an internal one for God’s people.

Nor should pilgrimage be understood as an exclusively Christian concept – our Muslim brothers and sisters make pilgrimage in the form of hajj as one of their highest duties to their faith. Our Hindu sisters and brothers make pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges River, while Sikhs journey to the Amrit Sarovar in Amritsar. Thus, the Busan invitation “invited Christians and people of good will everywhere to join in a pilgrimage of justice and peace.”

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Pilgrimages are not just about end-points, but about being changed and transformed on the way.
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Churches in different contexts have organized pilgrimage events based on the most pressing issues in their home regions. These pilgrimage events combine both public action and inner contemplation and prayer. As part of pilgrimage activities, participants often write prayers on posters in the shape of feet to mark their personal aspirations and hopes for peace and justice. Others have publicly reflected on their own inner journeys as PC(USA) teaching elder Rebecca Todd Peters (who has also written for this issue of Unbound) does in her blog post about her inner reckoning with whether her ancestors owned slaves.

A girl displays folded paper cranes she has brought to Hiroshima in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the U.S. dropping an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The cranes are a sign of hope and peace. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/WCC, Used with Permission

A girl displays folded paper cranes she has brought to Hiroshima in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the U.S. dropping an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Photo by Paul Jeffrey/WCC, Used with Permission

Events related to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace have taken place in Chile, Scotland, the Netherlands, Colombia, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, and Norway and have included a focus on climate change, justice for refugees, fossil fuel divestment, and children’s rights.

Sometimes the pilgrimage involves physical walking – such as the Walk of Peace event to the Hague coordinated by the Council of Churches in the Netherlands and PAX – or solidarity travel to accompany and bear witness to the suffering in other parts of the world. The biggest pilgrimage event is taking place right now to raise awareness about Climate Justice before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) November 30 – December 11, 2015. Hundreds of pilgrims are undertaking a journey from Flensburg, Germany to Paris, France, where the summit takes place. Other faith-based pilgrim groups will join them in Paris from other parts of the globe.

As part of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, WCC’s Churches Commission on International Affairs invited several prominent church leaders from nuclear states and states under the nuclear umbrella (in nuclear sharing agreements with nuclear power states) to travel together to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to participate in the anniversary commemorations. One participant spoke at the joint Anglican-Catholic Peace Memorial Service at the Catholic Peace Memorial Cathedral in Hiroshima on August 5, while another spoke at the 70th Anniversary Hiroshima Day Rally and World Conference Against A and H Bombs in Hiroshima on August 6. U.S. Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the Vice Moderator of WCC’s Central Committee, described the basis for faith-based advocacy against nuclear weapons:

“It is time to judge armaments and energy use by their effects on people and on God’s creation. It is time to confess that our desire for material comfort and convenience insulates us from the concern for the source and quantity of the energy we consume. It is time to abandon all support for retaining nuclear weapons. It is time to refuse to accept that the mass destruction of other people can be a legitimate form of protection of ourselves”.

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany and Pilgrimage member referenced solidarity with the hibakusha (the surviving victims of the 1945 bombings) to reinforce the urgency of banning nuclear weapons: “The hibakusha’s story shows that human beings are called to a new way of living: We must live in ways that protect life instead of putting it at risk. We must not use the energy of the atom in ways that threaten and destroy life. To do so is a sinful misuse of God’s creation.”

Graphic from WCC, Used with permission

Graphic from WCC, Used with permission
Click to Enlarge

The metaphor of pilgrimage is a powerful one for those of us committed to working for peace and social justice. Pilgrimage implies both a solitary and a collective activity – we each must act as individuals, but we also have the power of community to strengthen us and give us courage for the journey. Pilgrims often have a clear vision of where the end of the journey is even if it is sometimes difficult to imagine what each step along the way will entail. So too for those of us working for God’s Beloved Community. We know the kind of world we want to live in – a time and a place where no one suffers the outrageous brutalities of racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, ethnocentrism – but we don’t always know how to get there. There may be many who will offer maps, but ultimately the journey is made by walking.

The WCC has developed a congregational resource for churches to use in considering how to develop local pilgrimage programs. It suggests that churches and congregations engage in a three-part process: naming one’s own context and identifying pertinent local concerns; engaging in biblical and contextual reflection on themes of justice and peace; and committing to transformational work.

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The metaphor of pilgrimage is a powerful one for those of us committed to working for peace and social justice. Pilgrimage implies both a solitary and a collective activity – we each must act as individuals, but we also have the power of community to strengthen us and give us courage for the journey.
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#LoveMakesAWay march in Perth, Australia, 2015.  Photo: © Louise Coghill/WCC, Used with Permission

#LoveMakesAWay march in Perth, Australia, 2015.
Photo: © Louise Coghill/WCC, Used with Permission

The 2014 meeting of the Central Committee elaborated on the pilgrimage emphasis highlighting the four avenues to work for just peace: life-affirming economies, climate change, nonviolent peacebuilding and reconciliation, and human dignity. The Central Committee urged us to consider three dimensions of pilgrimage: via positiva (celebrating the gifts), via negativa (visiting the wounds), and via transformativa (working for justice). Much of the programmatic work of the WCC in the years between the 10th Assembly and the 11th will be guided by these overarching themes captured in the imagery of our collective Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace.

As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), what might we do to contribute to the Pilgrimage? Where are we headed as a denomination? What justice and peace issues are capturing our imagination and fueling our energy? How can we join in the pilgrimage? Join in the social media pilgrimage at @wccpilgrimage and #pilgrimsonthemove.

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AUTHOR BIO: Emily Welty is a commissioner and Vice Moderator of the World Council of Churches Commission on International Affairs and assistant professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Pace University in New York City.

Read more articles in this issue, “That They May be One”: Thinking Ecumenically for the 21st Century!

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