The Assembly itself was a global wealth of friendship, worship, presentations and responses. Much can be learned about it on the LWF website.
Unofficially, the overriding theme of the Assembly seemed to be homosexuality. Put simplistically, positions ranged between two poles—that of most of the African caucus, which denies its existence, and threatened to walk out if acknowledgement was allowed to go too far, and that of most of the Europeans, who consider homosexuality to be a natural and acceptable facet of God's creation, which the church should neither silence nor exclude.
Gay Anglican Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray started us off with a forthright testimony as part of his welcome to the city. Ralph Wushke and the board of Lutherans Concerned/North America, meeting in Winnipeg at the same time, added visibility to the theme through their presence and publicity, including a public reception. Even the small-group discussions at the economic globalization Village Group sessions, of which I was a part, seemed to drift toward this more controversial and colourful theme, including personal testimonies, reflection and concerns from all continents.
It was a blessing to have this Assembly hosted in Canada. One reason is that I was able to catch up with innumerable family, friends and colleagues from across the ELCIC and the ELCA, most present as enthusiastic volunteers or visitors. Unfortunately, some visitors complained of not having enough opportunities for participation, and of having limited contact with delegates.
Another reason I was glad to have the ELCIC hosting the event, is that I believe this exposure might wake us up to the depths of both the suffering and the faith of our Lutheran sisters and brothers around the world, inspiring us to emerge from our isolating, insulating cocoons.
Yet the host country of Canada turned out to be a grave embarrassment to us all. The Assembly was marred by the absence of 53 delegates, all from Africa or Asia, all denied visitors' visas to Canada. Half were from India, mostly Dalits.
Despite much questioning and protesting, to date there has not been an adequate or acceptable official response as to why the visa applications of these Lutherans were denied. One explanation was that these delegates or their churches had not gotten their acts together in time to apply. One official explained that it was up to Citizenship and Immigration Canada to protect Canadians from these applicants who had been accused of murder and theft. Their cases had been turned over to their respective national police forces, so Canadian officials could do no more to process their applications. So we Canadians should be grateful for such protection!
A frequent official response was that these applicants could not adequately assure the officials that they would return to the destitution of their home countries, rather than stay and take advantage of our Garden of Eden—such a slight to the dedication of these church leaders to their own people and churches. And who would really be the winners, and who the losers, if by chance one should stay? Would this truly pose a threat to our fragile Canadian society?
A Dalit friend gave me a different interpretation from his Indian perspective. Following the racism conference in Durban, South Africa, a couple years ago, at which the Dalits, with the support of the LWF and others, embarrassed the Indian government for its racist policies, the Indian government had perhaps requested that Canada not grant visas to the Dalits, thus avoiding further international humiliation. My public request at the Assembly for a list of the names and addresses of officials responsible for these decisions, to be distributed to the delegates in order to enable and encourage a letter-writing campaign, received no response. Rather, a public protest, involving a silent procession and a gathering for worship and testimonies, was held—a moving event for Assembly participants, but I wonder how much official response it generated.
So some are wondering what all this forebodes for future international gatherings in Canada. What about the 2010 Winter Olympics, many are asking? I don't suppose many African nations are training a ski team to compete at Whistler Mountain (perhaps a cool-runnin' Dalit bobsled team?), so Vancouver shouldn't panic. However, other groups planning truly global gatherings will have to look much harder for a setting which will allow as globalized a gathering as our global economy is supposedly becoming.
The primary message seems to be that our globe—beginning with the USA, which proceeds by infecting and pressuring its neighbours—is falling prey to fear and paranoia. The rich feel threatened by the poor. The wealthy feel a need to protect themselves and their comfortable first-world lifestyles from this threat of the poor two-thirds world, to keep them out, to shore up security. As a global community, the more urgent call is to insist to our governments that they are NOT representing us when displaying such despicable inhospitality. More…
-- Brian Rude
San Salvador, El Salvador