By Rev. Rick Buckingham
The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness – John Wesley, Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739).
In the August issue of the United Methodist Deacon News, the Rev. Rick Tettau gave an excellent description of the theme, content, and location of the World Assembly of the World Diakonia Federation, held in Berlin, Germany, held in July 2013. To hold this event in Berlin held particular relevance in the history of the organization. World Diakonia began in 1946 in the midst of the debris of the Second World War. Much of Europe lay in ruins, and the Nazi movement had been the chief cause of the resulting horror. A residual dislike—even hatred—of Germans in general can still be identified in many parts of Europe to this day. Yet it was in 1946 that a group of Dutch deaconesses decided to reach out to their German sisters and others to rebuild the Christian bonds that had once united them. Diakonia World Federation had its roots in this act of reconciliation and healing, and was formally organized the next year in Copenhagen. The 2013 assembly is only the fourth one to be held in Germany, and the second in Berlin, the previous Berlin assembly being in 1963 in a newly divided city. To meet once again in this now unified city in a reunified Germany, under the elected leadership of President Sister Doris Horn, a native German (and a United Methodist), with the theme “Healing and Wholeness for the World,” was an especially powerful symbol for all of us.
My first exposure to World Diakonia came in 1992, at the assembly in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I had been a United Methodist diaconal minister for almost ten years, and was aware of the movement within our denomination to create an ordained order of deacons. I wanted to learn more about diaconal work worldwide, and I was not disappointed. Meeting deacons and deaconesses and hearing their stories of call and service from around the world changed my perspective and, indeed, my identity. Prior to that assembly, I saw myself primarily in occupational and professional terms as Christian educator and youth minister; afterwards I began to see myself as a called, set-apart person in mission and ministry, with concern for the needs of the larger world. I learned about DIAKAID, the fund established in 1969 to provide direct assistance for various diaconal ministries located in areas of the greatest need, and realized that I needed to be doing more in my own place of service to educate and motivate my congregation to take action to meet such needs.
Now, 20 years later, I found myself connecting to old friends and meeting new ones: the Swedish deaconesses with whom I shared a lunch, the Australian with whom I ate breakfast, the Canadian with whom I shared a hotel room, and especially the Tanzanians with whom I struck up a particularly enjoyable relationship. A young man from my church is about to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and I was able to send him the names of Christian friends there who could render him assistance and hospitality should he need it. Through Christ, the world comes together.
When we are willing to step outside of our comfort zones, experience people and cultures that are unfamiliar to us, and trust in the grace of God, we begin to discover what it truly means to be part of the church universal. We learn to communicate in the languages of faith and music, smiles and sharing. And when in the presence of other deacons and deaconesses and diaconal workers, we realize the powerful unifying factor of the call of Christ to serve others. When John Wesley wrote about the essence of the Gospel being social religion, and true holiness being social holiness, he had in mind what today we would call diakonia: serving by connecting the gifts of the church and the needs of the people. I now return to my workaday world rejuvenated, but also looking forward to the next opportunity I may have to be in company with others who share my call. I hope that you will consider joining me!
Rev. Rick Buckingham is minister of education and youth for St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Kensington, Md. This is a contribution to a series of reflections on the World Federation of Diakonia Assembly held in July 2013 in Berlin.