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HURRICANE MITCH HELPED ECUMENISM, WCC GENERAL
"The hurricane moved Honduras out of an almost forgotten corner of the world into a space for new interaction between churches both inside and outside the ecumenical movement," declared the Rev. Konrad Raiser.
During a four-day visit here, Raiser met with church leaders from dozens of Honduran denominations. Some represented historic Protestant churches like Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians - denominations with a long history of participation in the ecumenical movement. Others represented Pentecostal denominations that have flourished in the marginal urban neighborhoods and poor rural villages of Central America.
Raiser said he was encouraged by the "openness" of the church leaders he met. "Many of them come from communities that haven't wanted to touch the ecumenical movement in the past, or who in fact haven't known anything about the ecumenical movement," Raiser said. "Yet they are very interested in knowing more about Christian people in other parts of the world and entering into new relationships with them."
The Pentecostal pastors told Raiser and other delegation members how local associations of pastors in several Honduran cities had divided in recent years "because some pastors insisted on belonging to the middle class, on wearing a white collar and necktie, which left the pastors of poor Pentecostal communities feeling they didn't belong. In response, the poor pastors split off and formed their own groups," Raiser said.
Many of these new pastors groups are working with the Christian Commission for Development (CCD), a long-time partner of the WCC in Honduras. Marta Palma, the WCC's executive secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the World Council would consider ways to encourage the development of this new sense of ecumenism, which she said had grown in the wake of the hurricane.
"At times we unnecessarily complicate the search for unity," Palma said during a panel discussion on ecumenism here. "At a local level, a practical level, we're often much more successful in building unity. When people in a village are working together to reconstruct houses or lives affected by a hurricane, they share together not just pain, but also prayer and hope. Their work together is unity and ecumenism in action."
Palma said the new participation of Pentecostals in ecumenical circles was typical of developments throughout Latin America. "Many churches that didn't get involved before in discussions about political participation in society are today getting involved, discerning their political vocation, opening themselves up to new paths along which God is leading them," Palma said.
The Rev. Israel Batista, the general secretary of the Latin American Council of Churches who accompanied Raiser on the visit to Honduras, admitted that the word ecumenism "still provokes a lot of fear in region. When someone says they're ecumenical, some people cross themselves in fear and others get ready to exorcize the demons. We need to recover a sense that being ecumenical is not an ideological position, it is part of our vocation to build bridges, to build reconciliation, to make God's house into a place where we all can live."
Batista said that ecumenism in the region implies acceptance of a wide variety of religious experience. "In Latin America today you can't talk about unity without talking about diversity," Batista said.
Honduras was the third country that Raiser visited on this current trip through the Caribbean and Central America. He earlier visited Cuba and Costa Rica. A planned visit to Haiti was canceled when Hurricane Irene closed airports in the region.
In addition to Palma and Batista, accompanying Raiser on his visit here Hubert Van Beek, the WCC's executive secretary for church and ecumenical relations, and a group of ecumenical leaders from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama.
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.