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United Methodists bridging global religious divide

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More than 100 Christians and Muslims in Jinja, Uganda, are working together to produce “Shalom Coffee from the Source of the Nile.” A recent survey has found that bishops outside the U.S. are engaged in fostering better relations among religious groups. File photo courtesy of Communities of Shalom.

By Donald E. Messer*

Whether engaged in peace-building, social justice programs or interfaith dialogue, United Methodists around the world are increasingly open to those of other faith traditions.

That’s the conclusion of bishops from Africa, Europe and the Philippines who responded to a questionnaire aimed at determining the extent of the church’s ecumenical and interreligious activities.

The survey, which included questions about the denomination’s Interdenominational Cooperation Fund, was prepared by the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

“Clearly, bridging religious differences and reaching out for spiritual relationships are in the DNA of United Methodists globally.” said Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the council’s ecumenical officer.

Bishop Christian Alstead of the Nordic-Baltic Area describes United Methodists around the world as “bridge-builders, always connecting the gap between Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, and Pentecostals. Some might not talk to others, but they will talk to the Methodists.”

The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., ecumenical staff officer, commended bishops in the denomination’s Central Conferences “for breaking barriers by leading their people in living out the vision and values of United Methodism as enshrined not only in the teachings of John Wesley, but in the Constitution and Discipline of the denomination.”

Providing ecumenical leadership

United Methodists are often called upon to provide ecumenical leadership.   Bishop Rosemarie Wenner serves as co-chair of the National Council of Churches in Germany. Bishop Joaquina F. Nhanala, vice president of Mozambique’s National Council of Churches, noted that “the UMC is deeply involved ecumenically, providing leadership at the province and national level.”

Bishop David K. Yemba of the Central Congo has been vice-president of the All-Africa Conference of Churches.  Bishop Benjamin Boni was the first president of the High Council of Protestant Churches in Cote D’Ivoire.

In the Philippines, Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso Juan’s described his pastors as being “inclined to ecumenism” and “very open and friendly” to persons of different religious traditions.

Working across religious divides

United Methodists are well known for their openness to brothers and sisters of differing religious traditions, the bishops pointed out.

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Hadja Fauziah Musa and the Rev. Julius Camanong participate in a Muslim-Christian Peace Building Dialogue in Davao City, Philippines, in 2007. File photo by Kathy L. Gilbert, UMNS.

Bishop Nkula Ntanda Ntambo of the North Katanga area of the Congo reported, “We work hand in hand with Catholic, Muslim, Pentecostal and indigenous religions.  We respect one another and share prayer meetings, encourage dialogue, and in time of war work together for peace.”

Roman Catholic choirs in Cote D’Ivoire often sing at United Methodist marriages or funerals and vice versa. In Sierra Leone, it is not uncommon for Muslims and United Methodists to marry. “If a mother is a Muslim, she takes the children to the mosque on Friday for prayers and the father brings the children to church on Sunday,” Bishop John K. Yambasu reported. “When they reach age 18, the young person makes a decision as to which faith to embrace.”

Often, they work across religious lines to end violence and promote peace. “In Angola, United Methodists helped create an Inter-Eccleiastical Committee for Peace to stop the civil war,” said Bishop Gaspar Domingos.

Bishop Patrick Streiff of Central and Southern Europe described how United Methodists in the Balkans and Macedonia have sought to keep peace in times of war. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, added David Yemba, “Churches speaking with one voice can make an impact in a society like ours facing violence and other challenges.”

Increasing social harmony

Yet the bishops also repeatedly suggested more needed to be done to facilitate understanding and social harmony.  Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco of the Philippines urged peace-making seminars for Muslims and Methodists in areas of conflict.  Nigerian Bishop John Wesley Yohanna proposed organizing peace workshops between Muslim and Christian clerics and youths.

Survey respondents stressed the need for theological education to be inclusive of ecumenism and interreligious understanding. Bishop Jose Quipungo of Angola requested funds for his theological school. Bishop Eduard Khegay of Moscow recommended conferences on interreligious dialogue on both regional and national levels across Eurasia.

Some leaders emphasized that ecumenical and interreligious relationships should not be simply matters of conversation but manifested in mission. “Drill water holes in communities,” wrote Zimbabwean Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa, “so that people of all faiths will have clean water.”

Liberian Bishop John G. Innis hopes “for joint projects benefiting impoverished children and helping persons living with HIV and AIDS.”  In Sierra Leone, practical seminars were proposed that would help Muslims and Christians address violence against women.

In East Congo, Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda dreams of restoring his country, ravaged by years of war and 8 million deaths, with new schools and medical clinics, healing victims of rape and caring for orphans.

 

*Messer, president emeritus of The Iliff School of Theology and executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, serves as a consultant to the United Methodist Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. News Media contact: Linda Bloom, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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  1. Kris

    I cautiously applaud their efforts. However, from what i see mentioned in this article and a previous article about the multi religious festival; this isn’t ecumenism. Ecumenism is creating unity amongst Christians separated by tradition or doctrine. I believe what we are seeing is the beginning of interfaith pluralism. Very different things. Worldwide “religious unity” thru shared spirituality. We cannot compromise any part of our faith, or apologize for any part of the Bible. If we are evangelizing, then I say great. If we are acknowledging any part of the Muslim religion as truth then we are useless there. We must be very careful.

  2. Troy Eckleberry

    Absolutely agree with you Kris. Serving, feeding and building shelters hand in hand with a Muslim is a good thing, but not when it’s done in the spirit of pluralism. Once I take the exclusivisity of Christ out of the gospel, it is no longer THE gospel; it is just another religion to practice to make yourself feel good. His sacrifice becomes unnecessary.

  3. strugglingtostayUM

    I am doing an experiment this week, but see that I am going to have to admit to failing. My goal was to offend no one. Then I read this article. I believe people of religion can work together to build wells and other community projects.but how do you share a prayer meeting with those that do not believe in God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? As a Christian, how do you join in prayer to a God other than the one True God. How do you join in worship with those that do not believe that Jesus, the Son of God, was born as a man, died for our sins and arose? Do we open the doors to our church for those that believe in pagan worship? How do we worship with Muslims when a large portion of that faith want to kill Christians? — Yes, I am sure I have offended by my statements and have to admit I could not make it a week with offending someone. But part of this article offends my beliefs. The beliefs that I thought the Christian church and the Methodist church were founded on: the New Testament belief in Jesus Christ and did not God warn the church in Pergamum about allowing people to compromise with the world and with pagans?

  4. Dan Burress

    I am LDS(Mormon) and I worked at a lumber yard in the South East .A new worker arrived who was Pentacostal and we got along fine until I told him about my faith,and then the abuse began. He would make every effort to bring silly literature to work full of half truths, written by people who did not have a clue about what we really believe. Another worker got in on the act and said disrespectful things about things that are sacred to us as Latter Day Saints. I had to have God’s grace to survive the constant barrage of misinformation and torment.I found that Grace through Jesus Christ.I testified that I knew without any doubt that the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon were true,that Joseph Smith was a prophet of the living God, and that the Priesthood and the authority to act in holy ordinances was once again restored to the earth in these last days.We eventually came to a mutual respect and understanding and parted as friends but it was a long,and hard experience that God allowed to happen to me to try me by fire to see if I would remain faithful to the witness I had received by the Holy Spirit when I first received the message of the Restoration from two faithful missionaries who had come to help one very lost soul who was none other than myself.

  5. strugglingtostayUM

    Dan Burress — the abuse you had was wrong!!! You have the right to your faith and your beliefs and that should never have taken place. I am glad you parted as friends. My concern with this article and the new idea that we have to be in “unity” with everyone has nothing to do with working with anyone in the work place, in the community or the world. Work to end violence. Build wells. Work together at the food pantry in your local town. Work in the factory. Be a good neighbor. No problem, My concern is when I am told I should worship in a way I do not believe.

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