The Advent of a New Global Faith Family

By Charles Honey 4-09-2010

The Grand River flows through Grand Rapids, Mich. with power and peace on its way to Lake Michigan 30 miles west. I often have run along its banks past dark-suited lawyers on lunchtime strolls and jobless fishermen hoping to snag a salmon.

Here, where American Indians once buried their dead in mounds while Christ walked the Earth, Christians from around the world will come this June to praise the waters' creator and pray for justice. Pilgrims from Nigeria, Argentina, Indonesia, and elsewhere will join a powwow with North American tribes to mark the advent of a new global faith family.

The World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) sounds as big as it is: about 80 million Christians from nearly 230 denominations in 107 countries. It's a new ecumenical organization born from the merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and its smaller, younger sister, the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC).

But the WCRC isn't about numbers or nice-sounding ecumenical platitudes, say those organizing its first Uniting General Council June 18-28. It's about expressing the unity of Christ through a commitment to justice that cuts across cultures, continents, and history.

"A unified church voice is needed more than ever in a world of conflict and injustice," says Henriette Hutabarat-Lebang, a WARC vice president from Indonesia.

For an American-Indian minister from Grand Rapids, this new faith fellowship is also about healing past Christian sins against his people. The Rev. Mike Peters is helping organize the powwow along the Grand River that will be a high point of the 10-day conference.

As an Odawa tribe member who was spit upon and called "Cochise" as a boy, Peters admits some skepticism about grand gestures from a faith that historically has done "horrendous things" to his people. But he has great hopes for the drum dance that should bring together about 1,000 global delegates and area Native Americans.

"It will be a unity dance of healing and reconciliation," Peters says. "I'm really believing this is a God moment."

Others say the same about the historic merger of WARC and REAC, two related but divisive faith groups.

Representing the Calvinistic stream of the Protestant Reformation, the Reformed family of churches has a history of both legalistic piety and vigorous social action. Doctrinal disputes have produced serial schisms including the bitter 1857 breakaway of the Grand Rapids-based Christian Reformed Church from the Reformed Church in America.

But in this heavily Dutch Reformed city of 192,000 souls, few can say why the CRC and RCA broke apart and even fewer care. The RCA and CRC have warmed to each other on everything from joint publishing to shared justice efforts such as Call to Renewal.

Which makes Grand Rapids a fitting birthplace for the World Communion of Reformed Churches. WCRC brings together WARC, with its strong history of social concern, and REC, historically more conservative.

"This is a hope and a dream of a very long time, that we really could be coming together as a Reformed community," says the Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, president of WARC and former stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

With its mix of Reformed, Congregational, Presbyterian, and United churches, WCRC bridges the mainline-evangelical divide as well as the global North and South. About 80 percent of its members will be from the South, most heavily in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Global justice in Christian unity will be the WCRC's bedrock, from earlier condemnations of apartheid to the Accra Confession calling for economic and environmental justice.

"When we say we are in communion, we are required to be an advocate for anyone in our community who is suffering injustice," said Rich van Houten, general secretary of the REC.

Charley Honey is a freelance writer and religion columnist for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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