Did you know that a giraffe’s tongue is about a foot-and-a-half long, is black, and like a human hand, is prehensile, able to curl around and pick up a tiny morsel? What an odd sensation it is to have a giraffe take one small pellet of food from your hand! That happened to me last month (as I write this) when I was in Nairobi, Kenya.
It sounds exotic. But my trip to Kenya was not about visiting animals.
Ellen and I were in Nairobi for the eighth Anglican Bishops in Dialogue consultation, which brought together 22 bishops, plus a chaplain, a small worship team and some dedicated staff from North America, England and Africa. With a Ugandan-born priest, Canon Isaac Kawuki-Mukasa, who was a former member of our diocesan staff and now is with the General Synod staff, I founded this group to continue informal conversations that had begun at the Lambeth Conference in 2008. As you likely know, the Lambeth Conference brings together Anglican bishops from across the world at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury for prayer, discussion and decisions once every 10 years.
Our informal, unofficial consultation began with 12 bishops from Canada and Africa meeting in London, England to listen to one another respectfully and prayerfully, and to learn how each other was engaged in the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. We knew about how we were different. We knew that we disagreed on significant matters. We knew that those disagreements could lead to division. We knew that a number of bishops and churches had broken off relationships with one another. But we also hunched that we had some things in common, that we shared a common vocation and mission, that we were all Anglican Christians. We thought we should find out something about each other, face to face, and hear directly about the other’s experience of the faith, their priorities and how they lived out their daily ministry.
Boy, were we surprised!
We did know about each other – but as stereotypes. In some ways, it is so much easier talking about someone else rather than talking with them, because your own fanciful projections onto them are not confronted with complicated reality. We learned that we held so much more in common than what separated us. We discovered each other as passionate believers in Jesus, who, both personally and together with our dioceses, were attempting to live and make alive the good news of the Gospel in the specific contexts in which we were called to minister. The propaganda, the stereotypes, the misinformation got challenged. In the conversations, we did not convert each other to one way of thinking, but we were all being converted more fully into the life of Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Friends with differences and similarities, with a variety of gifts and challenges, are not enemies but brothers and sisters in Christ, called into a common witness and mission.
Every year since 2010, we have gathered for ever-deepening conversation. The group changes: some leave because of other commitments, retirement, or death; some join. So far, 49 Primates, Archbishops and Bishops have been involved. We have no official mandate. We do not make decisions. We do not represent any organization. But we have discovered that we do make a difference.
What difference? In a world of either/or divisions, of extreme positions and polarities, of declarations of exclusion and hostility, we are a sign of the value of keeping conversations going across difference, of finding truth through dialogue, finding the image of Christ shining in the face of the most unexpected stranger. We witness that the Church of Jesus Christ is rich, diverse, challenging and dynamic. We are one because God calls us into relationship with Himself through our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. We do not choose each other; God chooses us. We discover that in no place is the church perfect. We discover that all of us have something we need to learn and something to teach. We are learning to be proud of our church and humble about our own accomplishments.
In Nairobi, we heard about the Swahili concept of haraambe, “pulling together.” It was popularized by the first post-colonial leader of Kenya. He had to build a new national identity by bridging deep tribal divisions and hostility that the colonialists had used to control the people. He had to find ways of unifying a new country that did not have a functional economic, social or political structure. Haraambe encouraged local people to contribute whatever they could, locally, voluntarily, generously, toward the common good. It built community. It created a new common identity. It was not perfect, but it worked and continues to be a work-in-progress.
The question we were given to wrestle with: can haraambe be a model for the Anglican Communion to “pull together” to do its work? Indeed it can.
We wrote this as a testimony: “We testify to what we have seen and heard and experienced during our time together, of the power of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – to transform lives, to draw us into a life-giving relationship with him and with one another. We commit ourselves again to Christ and to ‘pull together’ for his sake and for his Church through which his mission to reconcile the world to himself is lived out. We commit ourselves to working together as members of the Anglican Communion, freely offering the gifts we have been given to share for the common good, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, so that all may believe and have life in him.”
Feeding giraffes sounds exotic, but in our five days in Nairobi, that morning was one of the few times we even left our hotel. The truly exotic experience was eating, meeting, listening, living with other Anglicans from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds and contexts for ministry, and discovering Jesus in our midst.
And if you listen attentively and open the eyes of your heart, you don’t have to go to Africa to experience that. Just take an intentional look and listen to the “strangers” in your own community. You might be surprised by who is there.