Youth and the ecumenical movement: “There is a delicate dance going on in our churches”

Rev. Jennifer Leath

The Rev. Jennifer Leath is a member the World Council of Churches Joint Consultative Group with the Pentecostals and ECHOS, the WCC commission of youth. She is a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA and identifies herself as “a Black American who lives in solidarity with those in the African Diaspora and all those who experience oppression, these are they who capture my heart.” Leath was one of the speakers at the 2011 WCC Central Committee plenary on “Ecclesiological Landscape”, where she shared a strong testimony on the issue of youth and ecumenical movement. She was interviewed by Marcelo Schneider.

What are your thoughts about the fact that most of the older members of the Central Committee joined the ecumenical movement through youth movements and organizations?

Well, all people in the plenary were once young and got involved in the ecumenical movement in the formative stages of it. Many of them came out of organizations that were designed specifically for youth earlier on, but today the landscape has changed. Such organizations don’t have the same impact they once did. This means that youth don’t have the same form of formation possibilities. However, I also think this is really a systemic issue. It is not about the WCC, but it is how we work in today’s society. It’s about power.

But is not the WCC in many ways a reflection of what is happening in the churches?

The issue is that all of the institutions with which we work – all of these structures have aged, and as they aged they did not set in place systems to make sure that their constituencies would be rejuvenated.

So is there a generation gap in the ecumenical movement?

I think that there definitely is, but I think that there is a delicate dance that is going on, because, on the one hand, it is very important for a fellowship of churches such as the WCC to have as much authority in its voice as possible – and the authority that is recognized in our institutional churches and in our regions and in our countries is that of the leaders of our denominations, and that leadership is often an older leadership.

And also in respect to the governments of our countries, they’re not paying attention to the voice of the youth in the same way that they pay attention to the voice of the leaders of these institutions. […] So there is this delicate dance between being powerful in the perception of the structures of society in which we participate and also maintaining a prophetic and youthful voice. Not that the prophetic and youthful voice are always the same, but sometimes they are.

What is the best way today for the youth to contribute for a change in the WCC?

Well, I think that we have to insist on being both a part of the living fellowship and a part of the governance structures, and that means that we need to be trained and know how the WCC governs itself. And the correction that we should make that our predecessors didn’t is that we should design in our structure a way to make sure that as we age others behind us can come up because we don’t want this problem again.

What is the role of the church of Jesus Christ in the world?

I dream of the church, the ekklesia, the calling together, of all people who are cherished and honoured because of the particularities that we bring and are able to realize these particularities as the Church Universal. We become universal only through our particularities and through the integrity of our particularities.

That is my theoretical answer. But actually the theoretical answer is insufficient because the church that I dream of is the church where none are free until all are free, it is the church where we do justice, love, kindness and walk humbly with our God. That means we do not rest, we do not sleep, we do not stop, we keep fighting.

Our mission is that everyone will be able to live with the benefits of this world that God has given us in an equal way, to share equally. We cannot fall prey to false ideas of meritocracy and we cannot act like we have already arrived. We have to acknowledge in a self-reflective way that we are not yet there and that until the eschaton we won’t be. God’s reign on earth is when we find ways to empower one another even when it means that we need to “disempower” ourselves or share power with others.