In the first week of April people from the Presbyterian Church USA and Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (ECCB) met at Columbia Seminary for a conference entitled ‚Hoping Together‘, the fourth in the series of these conferences. From the ECCB, there were representatives of congregations, of the Theological Faculty, of Diakonie, and of the Ecumenical and International Department. We were joined by guests from the Church of Scotland and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), particularly from our partners in the LaCrosse Area Synod.
We were welcomed enthusiastically, hosted extravagantly, fed plentifully (and more) by Betty, and Mark I, and Mark II, and all those who worked with them. We experienced love for friend and stranger, both with the congregation in Athens, who hosted most of us for the weekend prior to the conference, and at Columbia Seminary in Decatur. Our theme of ‘hoping together’ reminded us that we were not merely bringing our individual hopes together, but recognising the hope that is engendered by the act of coming together, by encounter, gathering, sharing, seeing through others’ eyes.
Many of us knew one another already, or had exchanged emails, or had heard about one another. For some of us the visit was a little like a homecoming. For all of us the place at a bountiful table was welcome and wondrous. Whether we came from the USA, Scotland, or the Czech Republic, we were one. We remembered shared pasts, we planned shared futures, we exchanged presents. We shared doubts and sorrows, celebrated anticipations and hopes, learned about one another, got to know one another – and grew as a result in faith and in love and in hope. The question for us all will now be what we do with that, how we communicate it, how we spread it.
We also remembered, and tried to interact with, the places where hope is less certain, because the welcome is less apparent. At the Martin Luther King Center, we remembered the struggles in the American south for racial equality and civil rights; we recalled those who told others that they should know their place, and their place was not at their table. We spoke of how easy it is for countries and peoples to think they have nothing to share, no duty of care, no need for compassion, no desire to welcome. And in those remembrances the need for and the lack of hope was laid bare in a world putting its faith more and more in barriers and borders.
At one point, we talked about who was, in our assembly, invited to the table, who was not there, and who might yet be there. We spoke as people whose table it was, those who could decide who had a place. It is perhaps a dangerous assumption to make, one that those in the rich world, those whose table has enough and sometimes too much, find it no doubt too easy to make. Nevertheless, if we do make such a presumption, it brings with it a responsibility for how the world is ordered, not necessarily in this particular gathering, but in our lives of faith more generally.
We will gather again in 2022, somewhere in the Czech Republic, to continue our journey together.