April 05, 2020

A search for common ground> Convocation addresses growth of Christianity in times of change

The Rev. Daniel Romero was excited when the son of a good friend, along with his fiance, sought advice. The young man’s father was a Protestant of Japanese descent, his mother was an Anglo-Catholic and his fiance was a Muslim from China. They asked Romero where they could worship, not separately, but as a family. They sought a place that would respect and honor both his Roman Catholic and her Islamic traditions.

“I did not know what to say to them,” said the minister ordained by the United Church of Christ. “I see a day coming when communities of faith will worship together in the same setting, be they Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. But there are no easy answers as to how we get there.”

The former general secretary of the Mission Program with Global Ministries, based in New York, Romero has spent the past decade traveling the globe, watching Christianity grow and flourish amid political, economic and social repression. Earlier this week, he conducted services and workshops at the Bangor Theological Seminary’s 93rd annual convocation.

Romero, 52, was born and raised in Los Angeles, the only son of Mexican immigrants. His parents were Pentecostal converts, and he “witnessed some pretty wild spirit-filled moments and actions based on those experiences,” he told alumni, students and area clergy who attended the three-day event.

“That was, of course, before I was introduced to the more rational, calm and ordered mainline tradition, where a little pew movement causes alarm and shock.”

As a young teen-ager, Romero began attending a local Congregational church with his friends. He found it challenged him intellectually in ways the church of his parents did not. When he was 13, Romero’s mother died. A year later, when his father died, he and his two sisters went to live with the Congregational minister and his family.

It was 1960 and the church was involved in the civil rights movement and actively opposed the Vietnam War, Romero recalled. He saw faith make a difference in the world and the community, and he identified with the social and political changes of the times.

“My call to ministry is a result of the movements of the ’60s,” he said. In the 1980s, Romero earned a law degree. Although he is a member of the New York bar, he has never practiced the profession. Nor does he find the ministry and the law mutually exclusive.

“When I think of the laws and ordinances set forth in the Old Testament, it [being a lawyer] fits in well,” he said. “But I also see the law a tool I use in ministry to deal with critical issues a community is facing. … My advocacy comes out of my ministry. My ministry compels me to do this.”

Part of that compelled advocacy is to make North Americans aware of the globalization of Christianity. In 1900, Romero told the gathering, 80 percent of all Christians lived in Europe, Canada and the United States. By the year 2000, 67 percent of the world’s Christians will live in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“This represents a seismic shift in demographics, and while we may find it helpful and meaningful to define our reality in certain categories, we are only a small part of the whole,” he said. “The spiritual strength of the faith may reside elsewhere and we [Western Christians] need to ponder where we fit amidst this new phenomenon.”

Romero also said that while the congregations in America and Canada are graying rapidly and discussing ways to attract a new generation, young people are flocking to churches in Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Mexico and many nations across the other two-thirds of the world.

Many of the social and economic conditions that exist in countries where Christianity is growing are the same ones encountered by Jesus, according to Romero. One thing that draws people to the faith is its focus on ethics and justice and the same kind of advocacy that drew him to the ministry.

“Peter said that anyone who fears God and does what’s right is acceptable to God,” he said in his final sermon Wednesday morning. “We are engaged in a vision of peace and justice. That is what unites us.”

Wearing the same rainbow-colored stole he has worn since 1976, Romero urged attendees and their congregations to “engage in dialogue with people of other denominations, in other parts of the world … In a world where fences are being erected among all kinds of groups for all kinds of reasons … our strength is in the capacity to discern and feel the spiritual connection with others who are drawn to the same vision.”

The Rev. Barry Grevatt, pastor of the Congregational church in Laconia, N.H., and his congregation are seeking those connections. It recently became a partner church with a congregation in Bulawayo, a city in southwestern Zimbabwe. Already the African church’s former minister has visited Laconia, and a couple from the New Hampshire church have visited and videotaped services in Bulawayo.

“We are looking forward to sharing greetings between the children of the churches, like pen pals. The same with the women’s and men’s fellowship groups,” Grevatt said. “We are just beginning this process and still have to discover the possibilities in this sort of exchange.”

Romero called such interactions “transforming experiences.”

While Grevatt was not sure what to expect from the experience, Romero offered a prediction: “You may not change each other, but God may change you both.”

Romero’s views seemed at odds with the theme of this year’s convocation, “Christianity in a Post-Christian Age.” He said that from his experiences he believed the world has entered a “post-denominational age,” at least in the United States and Canada, but warned against making such broad, sweeping statements about the entire planet.

The Rev. Dr. Pamela Dickey Young, whose book provided the title of this year’s convocation, said the church, at least in North America, must find a way to appeal to young people that allows them to embrace Christianity as young people have in other parts of the world. She called for a “passionate discerning and proclaiming of the Gospel” as one way to accomplish that end.

In his lectures, the Rev. Dr. Christopher Morse spoke of a heaven on earth and suggested that heaven could be viewed “as a new humanity, new family, new relationships, new politics.” He said heaven’s focus is not some ethereal realm, but earth.

The Rev. James Merrill, pastor of the Kenduskeag Union Church and the Veazie Congregational Church, said the conference reinforced the notion that “context is everything. We need to address the Gospel to people in a way they can personalize and internalize.

“We can’t rely on traditions and old ways to do that for people today,” he continued. “We need to keep the traditions, but make them relevant. In essence, we must be all things to all people.”

The seminary’s president, the Rev. Dr. Ansley Throckmorton, called this year’s event one of the most “productive reflection times I’ve ever seen. The differences of opinion among the speakers stimulated growth and reflection in a very creative way.”

The topic for the 94th convocation will be “Living Trinitarian Faith,” Throckmorton announced. She said although nearly 200 attended the event, the weather had kept at least 50 attendees away. Next year’s conference is scheduled for the last week of January, but she said seminary officials may consider moving the event to a time of more predictable weather.

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