From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] A close-knit group

Date 17 Jan 2003 15:46:56 -0500

Note #7571 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

A close-knit group
January 13, 2003

A close-knit group

Students celebrate Christian diversity, find common ground

by Evan Silverstein

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - For Presbyterian Miriam Njeru, coming to America was a true
learning experience.  
The Kenya native, a daughter of stalwart Presbyterians, had always found her
spiritual center in thriving East African congregations like St. Andrews
Presbyterian Church in Nairobi, once her home congregation.

But that all changed 18 months ago when the 22-year-old came to the United
States to attend Southwestern Oklahoma State University (SWOSU) in
Weatherford, OK. 

For the first time, Njeru ("JAY-roo") had no congregation, and no friends
from church. And she wasn't happy.

"When we come here, the international students, we don't know how ... to get
to know our Presbyterian Church," she said. "The people do not come and tell
us, 'You are welcome to our church.'"
Things soon got better for the nursing student, thanks to the Wesley
Foundation Student Center at SWOSU.

"The Wesley" is a United Methodist campus ministry that welcomes students
from all denominations. 
It was through the Wesley that Njeru, now a sophomore, was invited to
Celebrate, an ecumenical conference for college students that helped her
learn about Christian churches in the United States and around the world and
make new friends from all over - including some fellow Presbyterians.

"It was awesome," a smiling Njeru said of Celebrate IV: Weave Us Together. "I
got to meet so many people I didn't know, international and Americans. I got
to learn a lot about what happens in the world. It was really nice."

  About 90 Presbyterians turned out for the conference, in which about 1,100
participants were "woven together" into a spiritual community that included
Catholics and Protestants, Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists, all come
together from around the globe to celebrate their common faith in Christ, and
their diversity.

"One thing I learned, 'the body,' you can't do without one part," said Njeru.
"I think we all need each other. We are of the same body. ... We can't do it

The five-day festival at the Albuquerque Convention Center, which came to an
end on New Year's Day, was co-sponsored by the Council for Ecumenical Student
Christian Ministry (CESCM), and the National Catholic Student Coalition.

 CESCM is a partnership of students and higher-education staff from the
Presbyterian Church (USA) and several other denominations.
Celebrate, the fourth such gathering, served as a forum, a "safe" place for
the students to broaden their theological horizons by stepping out of their
individual denominations and getting a glimpse of all of Christendom. 

"I think everyone hears the gospel and hears a kernel of goodness out of
that," said Jolinda Matthews, the CESCM staff member who served as
administrative coordinator for the event. "And only when we gather together
and hear these little kernels does it all come together."

Celebrate was designed to let the mostly 18- to 25-year-olds gain ecumenical
knowledge and find out about other Christian denominations through open
dialogue and personal interaction. They discussed their churches' differences
and similarities and shattered some misconceptions. 
They exercised their student-leadership skills and talked about how to work
for social justice.
"I think it's a very important event, because it helps to build Jesus' ideal
of having one church," said Dave Scherrer, director of student ministries at
Broadmoor Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, LA. "Over time, we've broken
into our little niches of denominational practices that we feel comfortable
with, (such as) styles of worship. We (sometimes) ... get false ideas of what
the other churches are about."

Scherrer said the conference was "a good way to have those (false)
assumptions erased" and to help participants see the "strengths and
weaknesses of our own denominations, as well as others'."
Lifelong Presbyterian Andy James, a 23-year-old seminary student from
Brandon, MS, said exposure to different Christian traditions "enables
dialogue that you might not otherwise have." The first-year student at
Presbyterian-related Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, said that
kind of openness "brings people together in new ways" and sometimes helps
people find "common ground where they might not previously have had any."

Members of about 20 Christian denominations attended the event, which is held
every four years. Celebrate officials said the Lutherans had the largest
group, of 327, followed by Catholics (248), Methodists (156) and
Episcopalians (151). Many others described themselves as "ecumenical" or

A handful of students represented the National Baptist, Dutch Reformed and
Armenian Orthodox churches, as well as the Christian Church (Disciples of
Christ), and the United Church of Christ (UCC).

 About 60 international students came from countries as distant as India,
Uganda, Denmark and Ecuador.

"There's definitely a large spectrum of people here, and they're at different
places in their spiritual and intellectual journeys," said Presbyterian Ann
Crews Melton, a 22-year-old senior majoring in religion at
Presbyterian-related Austin College in Sherman, TX. "It's a little hard to
get everyone on the same plane, but that's the point of us creating dialogue
together, to get everyone thinking about the same issues, and dealing with
other people that you ... might not ordinarily meet."

College students on winter break converged on the Albuquerque site from
across the country, from the University of California to Ohio State
University and Cornell University in New York. 

There were spirited worship services with thunderous music from around the
globe, Bible studies and keynote speakers, workshops, creative caucuses,
denominational gatherings and cross-denominational small-group sessions.

"This is the first time I've spent time with (people of) different
denominations, especially Catholics," said Ethan Boehm, a 19-year-old
freshman at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. "And we've had
open dialogue in our small groups about the differences. It's really cool to
see what other people believe."
In keeping with the event's theme, Weave Us Together, a colorful tapestry of
overlapping crosses, symbolic of Christians woven as one in Christ, hung
above the auditorium stage.
If Christians are to be truly unified, they must be more candid about their
differences, said the Rev. Wendell Gibbs, the Episcopal Bishop of Michigan,
who spoke during opening worship. 

"If Jesus and the Father were not honest with one another, they couldn't have
been one," Gibbs said. "If you and I aren't honest with each other, we can't
be one. Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I love each and every one of
you. There may be some things I may not like, but I love you."

A mariachi band played traditional Mexican music during a New Year's Eve
banquet, and Native American dancers performed during the event, which also
was attended by ministerial students, graduate students, professors, campus
ministers and chaplains.

 The event lifted up the important role that campus ministry programs - such
as the Wesley center frequented by Njeru - play in students' spiritual

"They offer students an outlet to explore their faith, have their faith
challenged and grow with their faith, while at the same time preparing for
their future," said the Rev. Kristen L. Brown, a United Methodist Church
minister who runs the Wesley.

The first-night worship service reflected the culture of the conference
venue, featuring Native American chants and drumming and a prayer from
Bernard Duran, a member of the Picuris Pueblo tribe of New Mexico. 

"Let's all pray for the new year 2003 coming up," said Duran, who was
accompanied by the drum group Southern Mix, which has members from several
Native American tribes. "I hope ... we do not have to go to war." 

Avoiding war was on the minds of one group of students that collected
signatures on a petition opposing a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. About 200
participants also attended a brief outdoor candlelight vigil featuring
prayers for peace and songs of hope.

"A war against Iraq is extremely unjust," said Megan Hoelle, a college senior
and UCC member who helped organize the vigil. "It's inhumanitarian, it's
unfair, it's unprovoked, and we are trying to do everything we can to make a
statement to our leaders and let them know that they do not represent us."

Terrorism and globalization were topics of a "Global Voices" session
sponsored by the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF).

"The Arab-Israeli conflict remains a bleeding spot in the conscience of
Christians all over the world," said Elias El-Halabi, regional secretary for
the Middle East for the WSCF, an ecumenical student organization. "Our God is
a just God. Palestinians are not children of a lesser God."

Presbyterian students discussed the Israel-Palestine conflict during a
session featuring the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, the Palestinian-American moderator
of the 214th General Assembly of the PC(USA). He talked about history of the
conflict and answered questions about a possible war with Iraq.

 Abu-Akel encouraged a group of about 40 Presbyterian students, whom he
called "the future of the church," to focus on campus ministries and their
local congregations, and to consider going on mission trips abroad or
attending seminary.

"When you get out of our country and meet other Christians from around the
world and experience other people, your faith grows," said the moderator, who
directs an Atlanta-based ministry to international college students. "I would
like for some of you to take time and visit some of the seminaries."

Keynote speaker Millard Fuller, a founder and president of Habitat for
Humanity International, a worldwide Christian housing ministry, urged the
students to extend their "spiritual antennas" to discern God's call.

"How do you know in a world of so many needs . . . what it is God wants you
to do?" asked Fuller, who told the students that Habitat has so far built
140,000 homes for low-income families in 87 countries. 

"God is broadcasting, young folks," said Fuller, who was raised in the
Congregational Christian Church, now part of the UCC, but is now a Baptist.
"If you will extend your spiritual antennas, God will reveal to you your
unique ministry, and what it is that God wants you to do."

Fuller fired up the crowd by singling out denominations.

"Got any Catholics, here?" he shouted. "I wonder if any Lutherans are here?
... How about United Methodists?" Each delegation obliged with a roar, and he
went on: "What other groups do we have here?"

"Presbyterians!" several people shouted.

"Presbyterians! I knew there were a lot of Presbyterians ... and I'm so
overdressed," said Fuller, who was wearing a coat and tie. "I dressed up for
the Presbyterians today. I have this Presbyterian look."

"We live in a pluralistic society," said Fr. Andrew-Carl Wisdom of the
Dominican Religious Order of Preachers in Chicago. "There's tremendous
diversity, and if we're going to break down the barriers that often divide us
... we have to come to know each other."

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