By Merv Keeney
Leaders from the Churches of the Brethren in Brazil, Nigeria, and the United States gathered in Campinas, Brazil, Feb. 27-28 to learn about each other’s churches and to discuss what it means to be globally interconnected. It was the second such gathering of the global Church of the Brethren from several countries, with the first being in Elgin, Ill., in 2002.
The 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Brazil brought together leadership of the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN–the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) and the Church of the Brethren in the US, and placed them in proximity to easily engage the leadership of Igreja da Irmandade-Brasil (Church of the Brethren in Brazil).
Leaders who were present included Filibus Gwama, president of EYN; Marcos Inhauser, president of Igreja da Irmandade-Brasil; Ron Beachley, 2006 Annual Conference moderator of the Church of the Brethren in the US; and Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the General Board. Suely Inhauser, co-national director of the Brazil mission, and Greg Davidson Laszakovits, Brazil representative of the General Board, also were present along with several other Brazilian church leaders.
Each church introduced itself to the others through a brief overview of its history, structure, and current joys and challenges. The Brazilian church was given the largest portion of time and attention, as participants pressed to learn more about this emerging church.
Marcos Inhauser recounted the history of the Brazilian church beginning with the first effort in the 1980s, and the new start in 2001. The list of fellowships now includes Campinas, Campo Limpo, Hortolandia, Indiatuba, and Rio Verde. He reflected on the theological context and highly competitive Christian environment that affect the effort to start a church in Brazil. A theme used by the Brazilian Brethren has been “a different church, making a difference.” Brazilian leaders who have come from a variety of church backgrounds commented that, “parts of me were Anabaptist, but I did not know it,” recognizing that as they learned to know Brethren theology and practice, it resonated with some of their core understandings of faith. Minimal membership growth during the past year and transitions of leadership have been discouraging, yet new leadership is arising and new ministries are emerging. The annual conference held in November was the church’s fifth, and some said it was the best.
Gwama reported on EYN, with nearly 160,000 members and over 200,000 people attending worship in 43 districts, 404 congregations, and some 800 fellowships. He gave an explanation of the church’s structure and long history, and listed the many church programs and ecumenical linkages. Gwama asserted that the church continues to grow because members talk about their faith, and all the church groups help to share the Good News with others. He reported mission efforts active in the neighboring countries of Togo, Niger, and Cameroon. He also reported a new office for peace and reconciliation headed by Toma Ragnjiya, who has completed a degree in conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University. Violence and destruction of church buildings at Maiduguri, a city of northeastern Nigeria, had just been reported in the media when the global church meeting took place, and Gwama voiced concern for the people of EYN and all of Nigeria.
John 17:20-25, Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and the world, began the report from the Church of the Brethren in the US. Noffsinger gave an overview of the church in statistics, noting challenges of pastoral leadership, aging membership, and membership decline. He observed that a question among young people is whether or not the church is relevant, and mentioned “Together: Conversations on Being the Church.” Beachley noted the theme for Annual Conference from 1 Timothy 4:6-8, “Together: Exercise Daily in God,” and reported that he has been encouraging reading scripture aloud, fasting one day each month, and praying daily for someone who needs Christ. Participants from the other church bodies expressed amazement at the number of church programs and structures in the US church. Presentation of a statement from leaders of the US churches that are members of the World Council of Churches, apologizing “that we have failed to raise a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to deter our leaders from this path of preemptive war,” prompted discussion and encouragement for this courageous message by the US churches.
Noffsinger also asked the counsel of the group about his participation in the World Council of Churches, saying that “it is presumptive for the US church to take this seat without consultation with Brethren in other places.” Participants were reluctant to make any other recommendation, noting the absence of the Church of the Brethren in the Dominican Republic. They encouraged the US church to continue to represent the global Brethren.
As the conversation turned to the question of what does it mean to be a global church, Marcos Inhauser noted that for Brethren, gathering together in worship, fellowship, and service are central to our identity. “So,” he asserted, “we must gather to be the church.” The group observed that valuing our gathered community of faith is built into our church structures in the annual conference or assembly. There was encouragement to visit each other’s annual conference when possible. Several voices emphasized that each church has something to give as well as to receive through our deeper relationship with each other. Hope was expressed for a regularized global meeting of the Church of the Brethren at some point in the future.
The group of global Brethren leaders also spent time experiencing the church and culture of Brazil, worshiping with the Campinas congregation where Beachley helped to dedicate a new baby; traveling to visit Campo Limpo, a poor community where there is a literacy and income-generating ministry among women and children; and enjoying a sumptuous churrascaria feast of grilled meats. Opportunities for one-on-one conversations around meals or travel were an important and meaningful part of the experience.
All participants voiced deep appreciation for the opportunity to be together and to learn more about each other and our respective churches. Gwama observed that “the possibility to visit each other has long been a dream of EYN. This meeting was really a blessing for me.” The Inhausers reported that members of the Brazilian church, who have been feeling discouraged by transitions, “felt valued” and honored to be visited by Brethren from other countries.
Each conversation has invited us into a new sense of global identity and inter-connectedness as the Church of the Brethren in various stages of formation and in different corners of the globe, but also to a broader understanding of who we are as followers of Christ.
–Merv Keeney is executive director of Global Mission Partnerships for the General Board, and is the staff responsible for relationships with Church of the Brethren bodies in other countries. He facilitated and hosted both meetings of the global Brethren.