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July 8, 2014
Panel discussion at the 2014 Luminosa Award for Unity to Rev John Armstrong, founder of ACT3network. First of all, actions, not words.

Rev. John Armstrong“The bible the world reads the most is the one they see in us.” With these words, the recipient of the Luminosa Award for Unity 2014, John Armstrong, challenged the audience at a panel discussion at Mariapolis Luminosa, Hyde Park, NY on June 21. How can the world read the bible lived out, if Christians are deeply divided and judging one another’s traditions, beliefs and forms of worship? If people can read in us Christians at least the core phrases of the Gospel’s message, such as “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34), they would get the essence of it.

Rev. John Armstrong is the founder of the ACT3network, an acronym for Advancing the Christian Tradition in the 3rd Millennium. It is a ministry that began with a focus on spiritual renewal but then embraced the vision that he calls “missional ecumenism,” opening the door to ecumenical dialogue especially among evangelical Christians. In his acceptance speech for the Luminosa award, he quoted Focolare founder Chiara Lubich with her statement, “In Christianity, love is everything.” If Christians really believe that, they would believe in this pure love that is both the reason and the consequence of the presence of Jesus in their midst. In this vision, we can believe in the renewal not only of theology and ecumenism, but all the fields of human endeavor. Armstrong said, “Our business is to live the Gospel in community; it is to be the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In the panel discussion, “How can we bear witness to the New Commandment?” the four speakers shared their personal ecumenism stories. Fr. John Crossin, director of the secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, invited everybody to focus on the mission that we have in common rather than looking at things where someone may think of lines that one cannot cross while being a Christian. “We need to call everyone away from fighting and to Christian love,” he said.

Rev. Elizabeth Nordbeck, minister of the United Church of Christ and faculty member of Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, shared four stories where she experienced ecumenism. What they all had in common: friendship and trust precede ecumenical dialogue; non-cognitive and non-verbal sharing matters; and very often it helps to “do some stuff together first.” Nordbeck encouraged everyone to have an open mind: “We all tend to engrave in stone the opposite of the things that we most fear. Instead, we need one another to learn from one another.”

Rev. Bud Heckman, director of the El Hibri Foundation and former executive director of Religions for Peace USA, widened the view of the participants from ecumenism to interfaith relations and highlighting the need for Christians to know how to connect with those who do not identify with a particular church. Times have changed: “When I grew up in a small town in Ohio, we were all Christians,” he remembered. One boy from the other side of the street didn’t go to their church: “Are you a Christian?” he asked him. “No, I’m Catholic,” was the answer of the boy. Having a Catholic as a friend was already an exception. Later, he was dating a Jewish girl, “and only when I asked her the third time what she was doing for Christmas, she told me: ‘Look, here is the Menorah, we are Jews, we don’t celebrate Christmas.’” In 1990, 86% of the U.S. population identified themselves as Christians, in 2001, this number went down to 76%. By 2050, less than half of the population may be Christian. “The group of ‘none’s and none’s’, who might be spiritual, but not affiliated with a particular religion, is growing.”

There is the need of the witness of mutual love even among religions. It should be bore with deeds, not words. He said, “We don’t remember facts, but experiences, we remember how we felt.” He cited the 2004 gathering of the Parliament of Religions for Peace in Spain, when the Sikh community fed all the XX members there present with vegetarian dishes. Everybody remembered the hospitality.  “It was building relationships instead of talking,” he said.

It was clear that there are still different opinions and convictions, but this isn’t a problem for dialogue: “I don’t want the other to agree with me — if so, it isn’t dialogue.” Dialogue cannot be argumentative, by nature, said Armstrong: “If they don’t want to hear what you want to say, there’s not much dialogue.” The other panelists agreed, because there are differences, but they don’t have to divide up. This commitment is about keeping the doors open to one another — and to the Spirit.

With the Luminosa Award for Unity, the Focolare recognizes since 1988 persons or associations who have given a significant contribution to building bridges of mutual understanding and concern among the various Christian churches, major faith traditions and people of good will, in all aspects of social life. Past Luminosa Award recipients include Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, Norma Levitt, former president of WCRP and honorary president of Women of Reform Judaism, Rev. Nichiko Niwano, President of the Japanese lay Buddhist organization, Rissho Kosei-kai , His Royal Highness Lukas Njifua Fontem, King of the Bangwa People of Cameroon  and Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, American Muslim leader.

By Susanne Janssen – Living City Magazine