The member denominations of the new World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) represent 80 million Reformed and Presbyterian Christians from 108 countries. But our diversity was not reflected at our recent Uniting General Council, the event at which the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council merged to form the WCRC. Roughly ten percent of those who were supposed to attend the Council were denied visas and never made it. This despite the fact that the North American leadership went to the US State Department long in advance and had been assured that there would not be a problem.
At the gathering we did our best to recognize the absence of the 73. At the opening worship service, we noted that their voices would not be heard, and expressed disappointment with the US government (See a video clip here). A banner “In honor of the missing 73” remained on the front platform all week. 73 empty chairs stayed on the plenary floor. None of us will ever know what those 73 would have had to say to the several hundred of us who did make it.
The 73 who were denied entrance were from the global south. They were trying to make the journey here from Indonesia, India, Kenya, Guyana, Nigeria, the Philippines, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Columbia, and so on. 46 of them were supposed to be voting delegates. At least 20 of them were young adults intending to serve as youth stewards (ages 18-30) or to participate in the Global Institute of Theology, a month-long course for credit. Visa applicants are treated as potential immigrants, and thus often denied, unless they can substantiate something in their home country that would likely ensure their return.
Lamin Sanneh and others have shown that we are in a period of “post-Western Christian awakening.” It was extremely important that the first baby steps of the World Communion of Reformed Churches be taken by a quorum of people who reflected the demographics of its members.
Christianity in the global south is now flourishing in all sorts of places where the gospel was first preached by Western missionaries (who I’m guessing did not always have visas). How ironic that contemporary Christian leaders in those places can now not even gain entrance to attend a meeting in one of the Western countries that launched the modern global mission movement. The church in the West needs more than ever to listen to and understand the church in the global south, but, in America, the fallout of our efforts to “secure” our nation in response to immigration and terrorism excludes our brothers and sisters in Christ.
A friend of mine from Angola did not end up among the 73. He had traveled the eight hours from his remote home province to the capital city Luanda to be told he had been denied his visa. He was delayed there a week, enduring endless red tape and inconsistent explanations, but then was finally granted a visa two hours before he had to be at the airport. He was grateful, not only because he could attend the Council, but because a few of us in Grand Rapids had arranged for him to see an ophthalmologist for his glaucoma. Maintaining his sight is crucial to his pastoral work in a congregation of 800. He wrote later, “Whenever I see the beautiful trees, rivers and enjoy the landscape I think of you. I can read in church, teach in school and play with children knowing that you helped me to check and protect my eyes.” He came to open our eyes to the life of the church in his corner of rural Africa.
It will be another seven years before the WCRC meets again in person. I hope the host country will receive all the delegates more hospitably than my own did, and that the next global ecumenical gathering of Reformed Christians will be able to more fully reflect the faces of contemporary Christianity.
Jessica Bratt is ordained in the Reformed Church in America and currently serves on denominational staff as Executive Coordinator in the Office of the General Secretary.