There was an unnerving moment for representatives of the United Church of Christ attending the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea. A throng of conservative Korean church members that numbered several hundred people gathered in protest of the WCC gathering as delegates arrived on Tuesday, Oct. 29, and there was a bomb threat reported at Busan Exhibition and Convention Center.
Still, UCC representatives to the assembly remained faithful in the gathering's call to peace, and in standing alongside Korean churches that are part of the WCC.
"The WCC was prepared for this, and at one point there was discussion of not hosting the assembly in South Korea, but it took great courage by local Korean churches to be willing to host the WCC assembly as a desire for unity of peace," said the Rev. Sarah Lund, an assembly participant and associate conference minister for the UCC Florida Conference. "When the mayor of Busan spoke to us, he thanked us for being here, and shared his hope that this gathering would bring the country peace. Our being here is a witness of the power of God to bring peace."
The assembly is supposed to represent a unifying moment for Christians in Korea, a peninsula divided into two countries, and a moment where global churches can stand together with their Korean brothers and sisters in Christ.
"There was mixed reaction [by WCC Assembly attendees] to the protests and bomb threat," said the Rev. Karen Georgia A. Thompson, UCC minister for ecumenical relations and advisor to the UCC delegates in Busan. "The bomb threat was unfounded, and while there are misunderstandings of the WCC and related partners in the literature of the protestors, we pray for all present in this moment."
There was a high security presence at the venue as the assembly kicked off on Wednesday, Oct. 30. Korean police lined up inside and outside of the BEXCO Center as participants arrived. There weren't any protesters though, who are primarily part of the Christian Council of Churches (CCK) in Korea.
"That's okay — we'll talk to them, we'll engage them," Mark Beach, director of communications for the WCC, said of the protestors. "And we'll go on with our program."
The CCK is Korea's primary Protestant denomination, a conservative group with more than 45,000 churches and 12 million members. According to the Korea Times, the group is boycotting the assembly, claiming the WCC has the wrong view of Christianity with its religious diversity and the inclusiveness of some denominations on sexual orientation. Protestors wore white shirts with the inscription, "NO WCC. WCC kills the Church of Christ."
The protest gave Lund a deeper appreciation for the Korean churches that are WCC members, and for faith communities that recognize each other's stance on marriage equality, regardless if they permit it.
"As someone from the United Church of Christ who comes to this ecumenical community supportive of LGBT rights, I feel supported by the WCC and its members within this gathering, even though [the LGBT issue] a point of tension," she said. "[LGBT equality] is one of the issues the protestors voiced. It's great to have the support of the ecumenical community, that they welcome us at the table if we have different views on human sexuality."
The UCC's General Synod has affirmed LGBT persons in multiple resolutions. The denomination also broke ground in 2005 when it became the first major Protestant organization in the U.S. to endorse marriage equality.
The UCC is one of the 345 members of the WCC, and has sent a team of almost two dozen representatives from throughout the life of the church to represent the denomination at this 10th Assembly.
The WCC gathering, which takes place once every seven years, is from Oct. 30 through Nov. 8 in Busan. The assembly is the highest governing body of the WCC, and is a moment when member churches come together for prayer, celebration and to set the future agenda for the council. There are more than 4,000 delegates, visitors, event staff and media members from more than 100 countries in Busan for the assembly.