“Never Too Young”
Written by Hannah Long-Higgins*
“You are never too young to lead nor too old to act.” Thousands of German protestants and international guests hung onto every one of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s words as he addressed an audience at this year’s Kirchentag in Stuttgart.
In a session aptly titled “Who takes responsibility in situations of crisis and conflict?” Annan and Germany’s secretary of state, Frank-Meier Steinmeier offered their perspectives on today’s most pressing global issues. Of the words exchanged between the world leaders, the piece of wisdom that stuck with me was Annan’s advice to young people. He urged the next generation of leaders to get involved in their communities, become informed, and seek to understand societal problems on a deeper level.
“Damit wir klug werden”, the theme of this year’s Kirchentag, translates to “so that we may become wise”. This phrase, taken from Psalms, offered a launching point for many discussions about a wide range of related theological, political, and cultural topics. Open-air worship services filled downtown Stuttgart and thousands of red scarves bearing the words of this year’s theme filled the main squares. On the first evening, just after sunset, thousands gathered in Stuttgart’s central square and lit the candles of those around them, igniting a beautiful evening of songs and candlelight called Abend der Begegnung, or Evening of Encounters. On a macro level, Kirchentag offered massive amounts of educational opportunities with speakers such as Melinda Gates and Angela Merkel. Concerts in parks allowed people to unwind after a day of workshops and meetings. The city offered a warm and eclectic atmosphere of cultural discovery as people of all ages and nationalities greeted each other and stopped at various tents and stands to try new foods or admire street performers.
On a micro level, international partnerships were strengthened and enriched at the Market of Opportunities, a seemingly endless assortment of tent stands from hundreds of organizations and partnerships, both German and international. At the Kirchengemeinschaft stand in “Die Markt der Möglichkeiten” (The Market of Opportunities), those of us from the American delegation, representing a wide range of UCC Conferences, and German partners representing a wide range of Landeskirchen (regional churches), told guests passing through about our historic partnership and the wide range of programs alive and well today that allow for cultural exchange and spiritual growth.
The discussions continued in a formal manner as we conducted interviews before a small audience at our carpeted area in the Market of Opportunities tent. Our public dialogues involved a moderator, a German UEK delegate and an American UCC delegate and covered topics such as “Racism in the U.S. and Germany,” “Migration and Immigration,” “Demographic Change in the Congregation and the Church,” and “The Voice of Churches in Politics and Society.” Because my assigned interview topic was “The Relevance of the congregations in the future,” I spent quite a bit of time pondering this theme. Through discussions with our German counterparts, I learned of the average German congregation’s challenges when it comes to engaging the community and staying relevant in today’s rapidly changing modern culture.
As UCC delegates, we were invited to lead a worship service in English one evening. Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference preached on the emerging role of community organizing in the United States and the role the church can play in dismantling hateful state policies and institutions. I thought of my interview topic: the relevance of the congregation in the future. In the U.S., there is an increasingly direct correlation between the role of the church and the politics of a given city or region. No longer can the church steer clear of politics or turn a blind eye to societal problems that stem directly from state institutions or policies. In Germany a similar narrative is beginning to unfold as millions of refugees spill out of the Middle East and North Africa and find their way to Europe’s land of plenty. Today’s global challenges call for a level of unparalleled creativity in order to carefully and thoughtfully show mass culture that the institution of the church is more relevant than ever.
As we talked over dinner and at the Kirchengemeinschaft booth, it became clear that the challenges faced by the church and society in Germany and the United States are not so different at all. The one inevitable factor of life is also effecting the institution of the church: change. Yet through international partnerships such as Kirchengemeinschaft, we were able to gain wisdom through our encounters with friends both old and new.
After the crowd of thousands gave Kofi Annan an explosive round of applause, he paused for a moment, framing his next words with silence. In a quiet, still-speaking voice filled with the kind of wisdom that comes from decades of witnessing the world’s greatest areas of need, Annan began: “It is easy to get the impression that the world is falling apart.” Annan urged the crowd to think global and act local– to get involved in community projects. In an age of endless information, I find it ironic that we seem to have fewer answers than ever. Yet voices like Annan’s reminded me that, more important than information is wisdom, and more important than relevance is the desire to grow. When I look back years from now on Kirchentag 2015, I will remember a rich experience full of newfound wisdom in partnership, and the many still-speaking voices whose wisdom arched toward a new, creative model of community organizing in the years of change to come.
*Hannah Long-Higgins is a member of David’s United Church of Christ in Canal Winchester, OH, and participated in this year’s Kirchentag as part of a United Church of Christ delegation, invited to attend by the Evangelical Church in Germany.