The World Council of Churches celebrated its jubilee anniversary at the eighth assembly, held this past December in Harare, Zimbabwe. The theme of the assembly was "Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope." Members of the WOMEN's network and the St. Nina Quarterly board were invited to participate in the padare - a forum for dialogue that ran concurrently with the assembly. Through a generous donation from the World Council, we were able to attend. The "padare", an African term referring to "meeting place," provided an open space - booths, seminars, and presentations - for the many visitors to meet and share their faith on a more informal level. (See the Spring 1998 issue for a related story.) It was an incredible experience, both in terms of the opportunity to have a dialogue with devoted Christians from all over the world and to have the chance to visit the southern part of the African continent.
We were met at the airport by a group of young volunteers who greeted us warmly and enthusiastically. They escorted us through customs and then onto the buses that would take us to the conference at the University of Zimbabwe. After registering and setting up our booth, we attended the opening vigil service for the Assembly. The service was modeled after the Orthodox vigil for the Cross. (The assembly was originally scheduled for September.) It was an uplifting experience to see and hear some 4000 delegates and visitors, mostly Protestant, worshipping in a manner that reflected the beauty and depth of the Orthodox faith.
The entire week was filled with opportunities to share our faith with others, whether at our booth, at lunch, at various workshops, or just in passing. In addition, we were able to meet with other Orthodox Christians from all over the world. Despite all the controversy surrounding some of the general proceedings and the question as to whether the Orthodox Church should even take part in gatherings such as this, we found that most of the participants were very interested in all aspects of Orthodoxy, particularly the experiences of Orthodox women in the Church. We took part in a number of impromptu meetings with various groups of Protestant women who wanted to meet and have an open dialogue with Orthodox women. We found these meetings to be some of the best exchanges of ideas and provided us with an excellent opportunity to dispel some of the misunderstandings they had about women in Orthodox Church. As we shared with them our experiences in the Church, it became clear that most of the women, especially those from Western Europe, had a rudimentary understanding of Orthodoxy at best. This is due in part to the fact that the Orthodox presence in their own countries is minimal or else it is still mostly confined to ethnic communities. Although we are much more Eastern in our approach to theology and spirituality, we were able to help bridge the divide because we are also Western. Meeting us and having the chance to interact with us more directly was a revelation for many of these women. They were especially interested in a faith that incorporates all of our senses and does not rely solely on rational thought. They were also quite surprised to find out that Orthodox women do have a voice in the Church. However, they wondered aloud whether it was taken seriously.
As we continued to share our experiences and some of our struggles, we found that we had much in common with each other. The week ended with many of us exchanging names and addresses in the hopes of a continued dialogue.