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21 January 2004
"Another world is possible. Let us build it!" WSF delegates attend Week of Prayer for Christian Unity church service in Mumbai
By Binu Alex
(French, German and Spanish versions of this feature will be available as of Friday 23 January)
"Let all who enter this church remember Richard Cobbe". The words, engraved at the entrance of the St Thomas Cathedral, drew the attention of nearly 250 worshippers at a service marking the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The service was organized by the National Council of Churches of India (NCCI) in the context of the World Social Forum (WSF) taking place in Mumbai.
Cobbe was the chaplain of the East India Company that in 1718 built the church, originally intended for the English community and dedicated to St Thomas, one of Jesus' apostles who, according to tradition, came to India to spread the gospel. Since then, years of wear and tear had reduced the church in the heart of Mumbai to a shambles.
On 18 January, the entirely renovated church, re-dedicated on Christmas day 2003, was the venue for a worship service centered on the Week of Prayer theme "My Peace I give to you" (John 14:27). "Christ is the provider of peace, which is possible only by fulfilling his prayer 'That they all may be one'," said Church of North India bishop of Bombay, Rev. Baiju Gavit, in his message.
NCCI general secretary Rev. Dr Ipe Joseph said that the church in India is "uniquely blessed with the opportunity of hosting the national and global ecumenical community for the celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the World Social Forum at the same time."
According to Joseph, "The spirit of the World Social Forum was further enhanced and strengthened by the affirmation of unity made at the service." The energy of the affirmation that "'Another world is possible. Let us build it!' was powered by the spirit of unity," he said.
"It is a good occasion, and I hope that these youths learn from their experience," said bishop Gavit, referring to the 50-odd young Christian delegates whose participation at the WSF was facilitated by the World Council of Churches (WCC), together with the NCCI and the Student Christian Movement in India.
Bible readings, intercessory prayers and greetings were shared by representatives of local churches, member churches and NCCI staff, delegates from the Christian Conference of Asia, the WCC, the Lutheran World Federation, and national and international ecumenical organizations.
NCC Pakistan general secretary Mr Victor Azariah made special mention of the peace emerging between India and Pakistan. Prof. Mohinder Singh, director of National Sikh Study Centre, brought greetings of peace on behalf of people of other faiths.
While the Week of Prayer provides "the opportunity of praying together for the unity of humanity, the presence of representatives from Pakistan and also of people of other faiths makes it evident that prayer for unity surpasses political enmities and religious diversities," Joseph also stated.
"It is indeed a privilege to be with people who share our views and are working for a better world," Siji Samuel, a Mar Thoma Church member, agreed with professor Singh. Addressing the congregation during the service, the turban-clad Singh asked it to form pressure groups to support the Dalits in their struggle for dignity.
Those who attended the worship, conducted by Rev. Packiam T. Samuel, had the opportunity to confirm that Mumbai is a very appropriate venue for a forum seeking alternatives to economic globalization. Being itself a part of globalization, Mumbai is also one of the best, and worst, examples of colonization.
When the East India Company developed Bombay as a port city, it also brought in British rule, from which India regained independence in 1947. The WSF delegates hovered around the church, an important tourist venue with over 100 visitors daily, admiring its architecture. Much of the sculpture is dedicated to the army officers who defended British rule by defeating the Indian provincial rulers.
The delegates discussed, among other things, the impact of globalization on humans, under the neon lights of HSBC and ABN-Amro, two global economic giants with offices just across the road. But the poor in Mumbai seem to be hardly aware of how globalization impacts on them, and why the World Social Forum is taking place.
"I never knew it was so dangerous, believe me," the church gardener, Raju Bansode, said, reducing two delegates discussing the perils of globalization to silence. Bansode was apparently not interested in listening to the pros and cons of globalization; he had to finish watering the plants and catch a suburban train to his home, almost an hour from the church premises.
How the church is perceived in the local, predominantly Hindu, community was revealed by two church caretakers.
"It never occurred to us that we are working in a Christian place, because we feel we are in our own community and people respect us," said one of the caretakers, Arjun Gere, who is a Hindu. The Hindu system forbids the lower of its four castes to attend certain places of worship. They have different temples, and are not allowed to enter the homes of the highest caste Brahmins. "I believe the Christians are the most democratic people in the world. They care least for your caste, colour or religion," Shiv Raj, the second caretaker, remarked.
The "extraordinary Christian presence", as one international press correspondent puts it, has been one of the most commented features of the Mumbai forum - a presence noted elsewhere by other observers, including former WCC Churches' Commission on International Affairs (CCIA) director Ninan Koshy from India, and WCC programme executive for economic justice Rogate Mshana from Tanzania.
Calling it "a very positive change", Koshy highlighted the relevance of "churches taking an active part in the World Social Forum". Mshana, who is leading the WCC team at the WSF, recalled that he had been the only WCC participant at the 2001 Porto Alegre forum.
As sun set beyond the dockyards of Mumbai, the WSF participants who attended the unity worship service at the St Thomas Cathedral climbed into buses waiting outside to take them back to their hotels and guesthouses. And the local church residents hurried to the near Churchgate railway station, not as bustling as on working days, to catch a train to their homes.
Binu Alex is a Catholic Indian radio journalist based in Ahmedabad.
Information and photos on the activities of the World Council of Churches at the WSF in are available on our website:
For further information, please contact:
In Mumbai: Binu Alex +91 982 401 3856
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Juan Michel,+41 22 791 6153 +41 79 507 6363
The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings together 349 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians in over 110 countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church. The WCC general secretary is Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, from the [Lutheran] Church of Norway. Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.