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Youth find reconciliation through understanding

by Heather Chappell

Understanding is the first step on the road to reconciliation. This is one of the convictions that Christian youth from diverse regions will carry home with them following a week of conversations and reflections on the themes of mission, reconciliation and healing.

During the week of May 3-8, 2005, one week prior to the 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, 49 participants gathered at the Agios Andreas Recreational Centre near Athens, Greece. The event was designed as an opportunity for young people to join in community before attending the main conference. According to Vahagn Azizyan, a youth delegate from Armenia, the pre-conference experience was a "marvellous opportunity to discover Christian riches from all over the world."

Monica Coll Gonzáles from Cuba found that the diversity of participants made for interesting discussions on key issues facing the church in the world. "Views and opinions were certainly rich," she said. Yet, while backgrounds, denominations and opinions varied widely, similarities were also discovered. When discussing the problems associated with reconciliation in various political, theological and social contexts, Gonzáles reported that many participants shared similar experiences. "It seems that the problems are the same all over the world," she said.

Bringing the conference back home

The pre-conference also provided the young people with practical knowledge and tools that will be useful to them once they go back to their local communities. Bertram Granville Swarts will return to South Africa, where he acknowledges that racism still exists despite ten years of democracy. He found that the youth conference has challenged him to discover personal reconciliation and healing within this context. "I will go home with a lot of experience," he said.

Participants included both stewards and youth delegates. Half of the stewards were Greek. Of these, some were Orthodox, some Evangelical. Greek participant Anastasia Gkitsi discovered that by sharing their experiences, participants were able to gain a growing understanding of one another. Stewards and delegates travelled to a downtown Greek Orthodox church, where they were given the opportunity to ask questions. For many, this was their first exposure to Orthodoxy. Natalie Maxson, Youth Programme Executive for the World Council of Churches (WCC), reports that it was an extremely positive experience. Through learning and sharing together, youth from widely varying backgrounds began to appreciate one another as members of "healing and reconciling communities", in the words of the conference theme. They also developed good relationships that will most likely last throughout their lives.

During the pre-conference, stewards began developing ecumenical projects that will be implemented when they return home. These projects will focus on issues such as HIV/AIDS and globalization, and will include youth workshops and exchanges between churches. The Greek stewards, both Orthodox and Evangelical, are working together on one of these ecumenical projects. They are excited and hopeful about this unprecedented partnership, and they ask for the prayers of conference participants over the coming weeks and months.

Planting seeds

Although it is the goal of the World Council of Churches (WCC) to have 25% youth involvement in any activity, under 10% of the main conference delegates are young people. Maxson worries that the perspectives of youth could be marginalized as a result. "As a young person working with youth, I find that it is a constant battle to make space for the voices of youth to be heard," she says. However, the strong connections and friendships that were built at the pre-conference event will enable those attending the conference to have a much stronger voice than if they were to attend individually. Together, they will share in two plenaries, through drama and art.

Maxson stresses that the stewards participating in the main conference are not merely volunteers. They are participants in an ecumenical learning experience. They are very much involved in their home churches, and they are at the conference to build connections. She believes that it is "the responsibility of older delegates to get to know these young people, and to support them in their work."

When asked if the goals for the pre-conference event were met, Maxson responds that she doesn't like to think in terms of "goals" when people are involved. Rather, she sees the event as a chance to plant seeds. "You don't necessarily see the fruit that develops immediately," she says. She goes on to say that the connections that were made, the co-operation of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Greek Christians, the understanding that was achieved - all of these can be considered the fruits of this process. "It is an ecumenical process that continues long past this conference," she says.

The youth event was sponsored by the World Council of Churches, in co-operation with ecumenical partners.

(*) Heather Chappell is a writer from Toronto, Ontario. She works as Programme Assistant for The Presbyterian Church in Canada in the areas of Stewardship and Mission Education.