Small gestures can help build interfaith connections in a big way, according to The Reverend Bernice Powell Jackson, president of the North American Region of the World Council of Churches, and pastor of the First United Church of Tampa.
Jackson, who has nearly three decades of global experience as a human rights activist, including work battling apartheid alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke on the challenge of interfaith initiatives during a March 16 talk at the Frick Center.
Jackson’s presentation focused on the work of the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of church denominations worldwide that seeks unity, justice and service. Her appearance was part of the College’s yearlong focus on religion in public life, Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith.
The World Council of Churches (WCC), based in Geneva, Switzerland, was formed in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust. “Many churches asked themselves, ‘Why were we silent?’” Jackson said. “It was a time of real introspection, especially in Europe.”
The WCC closed its U.S. office at the end of 2009, but Jackson continues to lead member denominations and church families throughout the U.S. who are active on council initiatives such as reducing gun violence. They work with a staff representative in Geneva who oversees North American programs.
Much of the group’s justice work revolves around climate change, access to clean water as a human right, and overcoming violence. “Some churches focus on domestic violence or gun violence in their communities, while in other places, war is the focus,” Jackson said. The council also helps coordinate humanitarian relief after hurricanes and other disasters.
The group’s focus on interfaith dialogue has expanded from a group of Christian theologians tackling global issues, to continuing discussions with Jewish, Catholic and Muslim leaders.
“It’s a different world now,” Jackson says. “We used to act like the world was Christian. Now we see that we live in a pluralistic nation and world, and that we’ve been called to live together.”
In the last decade, ordinary people of faith, in addition to theologians, have become an important part of the conversation. “We need to understand what we have in common, the tenets of faith we share, and how do we live together in this world,” Jackson said. In Africa, for example, the WCC has brought together Christian and Muslim interfaith crisis teams in an effort to avoid regional war. “Though we may call God by different names, we all believe in the same God,” she said.
Chaplain H. Scott Matheney, who introduced Jackson, said it’s important to expose students to her international perspective on interfaith discourse. “We want our students to be global citizens and think about questions of justice and injustice worldwide,” he said.