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Fun, service and protest at world church gathering

By Fuailelagi Samoa Saleupolu

Youth are the church of today. This was the key message from some of the young people who attended the 9th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Brazil last month.

Held every seven to eight years, the General Assembly gathers representatives from the WCC member churches to review its programmes and policies. Tauiwi youth ministry facilitator Te Rito Peyroux; had the opportunity to attend this huge ecumenical event and was part of the General Assembly Stewards Programme with 150 other young people from around the globe.

A few weeks in Brazil with heaps of other young people sounds like a fun adventure. According to Te Rito, it was not all about having a good time, however.

“The main focus of the stewards programme is to support the running of the General Assembly. Stewards were assigned to different areas around the assembly, ranging from areas of hospitality, to areas relating to communication and documentation, and everything in between.”

Te Rito worked in the Mutirao Area, which was a less formal, slightly more intimate arena where people came together to share through workshops, debates, exhibitions and cultural performances.

“It was a lot of work and was a bit tiring at times, but those of us assigned to the Mutirao area were very well looked after in terms of knowing were to go, what to do, who to ask for help, etc.”

With well over 2000 participants from around the world, the culture of this General Assembly can be overwhelming for some young people. As part of the stewards programme, Te Rito attended the pre-assembly youth event. It was an opportunity for the stewards, youth delegates and Mutirao participants to build a sense of community by getting to know each other, share and discuss issues of importance for young people.

“One of the big issues highlighted at the youth event was that youth want to be a valued part of today’s church, and not just put on the back-burner for the future. With relation to the General Assembly this then moved discussion toward supporting an aim for a 25% youth representation on WCC Central Committees.”

The Central Committees are elected at each General Assembly and are responsible to oversee the work of WCC between assemblies. At the 2006 General Assembly the percentage of youth nominations for the Central Committees fell considerably lower than 25%. Thus to mark their disappointment, a large number of the stewards, along with some youth delegates and supporters led a silent protest into the plenary hall, where the general business and decision making was made).

Te Rito stood with her fellow peers in this act of protest. “We wore our bandanas over our mouths and we quietly stood together in solidarity, to show the Assembly that the voice of the youth had indeed been silenced”.

This is not a new issue for the church, yet it reveals that young people in the church today continue to be committed and passionate about being involved.

Participation in the WCC General Assembly is a unique opportunity to experience the diversity of the global ecumenical church family. Now that Te Rito has returned to New Zealand, she describes the experience as diverse and overwhelming.

“Although we experience diversity here in Aotearoa, over there it’s so much more magnified and you certainly learn to appreciate the context that you come from.”

Te Rito says there was an initial fear of the unknown but her sense of identity that helped her overcome it. This sense of identity included belonging to a Connexional church family where diversity is acknowledged and celebrated.

Being at the General Assembly gave Te Rito further insight into how Aotearoa fits into the wider ecumenical church. “Our journey as Te Haahi Weteriana may not be plain sailing, but going over there puts things into perspective. I believe with a stronger conviction that we are blessed in our context.”