Friendships have helped Polly Hamlen rise above disagreements with Christians whose perspectives on ordination of women and same-sex marriage differ from hers.
During February's World Council of Churches ninth international assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Hamlen established new friendships and engaged in dialogue with some of the 4,000 participants.
Back in 1998, as part of a delegation from Spirit of the Lakes UCC in Minneapolis, Minn., Hamlen had attended the eighth assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, to help lead a padare -workshop - on gays and lesbians. They went as a witness after Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe made blatant anti-gay comments before the assembly. That experience began her journey into an ecumenical commitment.
Now attending Hope Church (UCC/Disciples) in Jamaica Plain, Mass., she is on the UCC's Massachusetts Conference Commission for Ecumenism and is a member of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
At Harare, her encounters with Orthodox Christians raised her curiosity, especially their approach to women in ministry and homosexuality.
"I realized I knew little about Eastern Orthodox churches and other dialogue partners," Hamlen said. "I came away committed to learning more. I particularly wanted to understand why some in Russia, Africa or even the United States might oppose the ordination for women and the inclusion of gays and lesbians my church experience assumed."
H a m l e n decided to continue pursuing that interest by spending 2002 to 2003 completing a master's degree in ecumenism at the WCC's Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, near Geneva, Switzerland, where she lived in community with two groups of about 35 people from 40 countries for three months with each. During that time, she established interpersonal relationships that transcend disagreements.
"Often we think people who disagree with us are not faithful or do not understand the Bible," Hamlen said, "but when we know someone as a human being, stereotypes drop and conversations begin."
An Orthodox priest she befriended at Bossey was open to listen to her perspectives and readily shared his concern that feminism is destroying Russian culture.
Because Bossey is a context for such sharing, Hamlen is convinced the UCC should send more people there for ecumenical conversations, to share the UCC's prophetic stances on a consistent basis.
Now living near Boston, Hamlen seeks ways for the church to be a force for reconciliation.
"We need more than proclamations. We need to hear stories and accompany people in their journeys," she said.