Global youth conference goes on, despite world's unrest

By Kathleen LaCamera*

NEWTOWNABBEY, Northern Ireland (UMNS) -- Two weeks before Zimbabwean Vuyi Nemapare was to fly to Belfast for a World Methodist youth conference on evangelism, she started praying. She still did not have the money she needed to go. She had no plane ticket.

"I was packing by faith," said the young laywoman, who works at a Harare-based telecommunications company.

A friend and mentor in Texas, Pamela Calip, called Nemapare and told her to go and stand at the airport, with her bags packed, without a ticket if necessary.

"I was praying, 'God give me the opportunity to go and testify for you,'" she recounted. "I realized I might never have the chance again to be part of such a global representation of young people. But I didn't realize what God answering my praying would mean."

Even though her ticket arrived in the nick of time, a bigger test still lay ahead for Nemapare, as she made her way to the 7th International Christian Youth Conference on Evangelism.

The conference, held every four years, hosts young people ages 17 to 30 from all over the world in a weeklong exploration of faith and mission. This year's conference, with the theme "Christ Jesus, God's Way," was held July 17-23 in Newtownabbey near Belfast. To get there, Nemapare had to fly from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, then on to Paris and into Birmingham, England, before reaching Northern Ireland.

At the Birmingham airport, Nemapare was the only person on her flight stopped for questioning. Every piece of her luggage was opened and searched.

"The immigration official was very suspicious of me. He made me feel ashamed to be from Zimbabwe. He accused me of making up a story about why I had come to Britain," she told United Methodist News Service. "He kept saying 'you people' this and 'you people' that. It made me feel angry when I didn't want to be. He really threatened me. He said they were going to tag me. I just prayed, in my spirit, in my heart, '(God) I know you want me to be at this conference' and God made a way."

Nemapare finally got to the conference, joining 275 other participants from 36 countries. She was a day late and minus one piece of lost luggage but certain that God wanted her to be there. Later she discovered she was actually one of the lucky ones. Another 50 official representatives from Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Cameroon, Angola, Mozambique, Kenya, the Philippines, Pakistan and India never made it. They were denied visas by the British government before even leaving home. The suspicion and fear resulting from global unrest, a war on terrorism and failed diplomacy meant even representatives to an international group of Methodist young peo – meeting to break down the barriers between cultures – were suspect.ple
With the reality of the world's divisions so close at hand, the Rev. Grace Imathiu, a Kenyan-born pastor and international speaker, challenged conference goers to "cross the seas" that divide people from one another. Around the room, young people wearing traditional dress from cultures as diverse as Japan, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Indonesia nodded in agreement.

Reflecting on Chapter 5 in the Gospel of Mark, she described Jesus as "the one who crossed the sea for me and for you."

"We are called to be the 'sea-crossers,' the bold ones, the ones who don't expect to be loved, but love anyway," said Imathiu. "Our world needs it so badly. ... God is a God who takes risks. ÉWe are called to get to that other side. Get out of the boat and take the risk."

Imathiu encouraged the young people to leave their familiar comfort zones. "If you sit at breakfast with those you came here with, something is wrong. É If you don't take risks, nothing will happen."

Taking those words to heart, 17-year-old Paul McGarry from Plymouth, England, sat down at breakfast the next morning with Mawia Lal Fak Mania from Myanmar (Burma) and Neil Waddle and Cathy Harness from Los Altos, Calif.

"She's putting yogurt on her cereal," observed a clearly horrified McGarry, who is a part-time youth worker at his church. "Do all Americans do that?" Harkness assured him that, at least in California, quite a few did.

Despite their differing preferences for how to eat breakfast cereal, all around the table agreed they had come to learn about how young people around the world live their faith.

"Learning about what others believe also helped me to know better what I believe," Harkness said.

Over another meal, teacher Chiang Hanyang from Taiwan, recent college graduate Jesse Turner from Tennessee, and Samuel Dzobo, who pastors a church of 2,000 in Zimbabwe, talked about how much each has come looking for something specific. Chiang, like many here, admitted he gets little chance to interact with people from other cultures back home. Dzobo said he was interested in worship as a means of self-expression, while Turner came with questions about the value of such gatherings.

"It's interesting to see how people deal with each other at an event like this," Turner said. "I want to see what really happens when the church gathers like this. Is this what we should be doing, or are their better ways to spend our money?" Turner plans to spend the next year working for Habitat for Humanity in Durham, N.C.

Turner was not the only one at the conference exploring his relationship to the institutional church. At the encouragement of her pastor at First United Methodist Church in Canton, Ga., Kelly Falany arrived seeking discernment. Falany, 25, grew up in a non-denominational church setting. By her own admission, she feels a bit "caged in" by denominational labels. She studied marketing at college, but wants to be a missionary and is uncertain about seminary and exactly what God wants for her. The one thing she is sure about is that she has a "passion for mission." For Falany, the conference seemed a good place to test those vocational waters.

Conference planners and participants knew they were meeting in a place where religion is often seen as a divisive and destructive. From conference buildings at the University of Ulster, one can look out across the water of Belfast Lough and see East Belfast, where some of the worst outbreaks of Protestant paramilitary violence of recent weeks have occurred.

The youth conference took place during the peak week of the annual marching season, when Protestants commemorate the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over Catholic King James more than 300 years ago. While in years past this period has seen violent clashes of Catholics, Protestants and security forces, conditions were relatively calm this year. In a move that surprised everyone in Northern Ireland, on July 16 coi ncidentally the day the conference began the Irish Republican Army issued a blanket apology for the "civilians" it has killed and wounded in the last 30 years.

The Rev. H. Eddie Fox, head of the World Methodist Council's World Evangelism office, told UMNS that "Christ is the reconciler, not the divider – Christ is the great healer." Fox said the decision to bring the conference to Newtownabbey was done in consultation with and at the invitation of the Irish Methodist Church.

The Rev. Winston Graham, president of the Irish Methodist Conference, described the significance of the conference being held in Northern Ireland during his welcoming remarks on the opening night.

"There were times in our past when you would have been afraid to come, but times have changed," he told the young people. "You are good news for us here in Northern Ireland. Your presence here this week is Good News."

During the week, participants attended sessions with titles such as "Faith Sharing" and "Jesus, Young People and Evangelism." They shared in the worship with the likes of Bishop Sunday Mbang of Nigeria, president of the World Methodist Council. They got involved in mission projects, went to church and had lunch with local families. They managed to fit in a trip to the famous Giants Causeway, a spectacular natural stone formation along Ireland's northern coast, and also spent a night celebrating Irish culture, courtesy of the Irish Methodist Church. They did all that and still managed to sit around talking and listening to music until the wee hours on most nights.

Despite a rough beginning, Nemapare said that her conference experiences bot h those she planned for and those she did not "deepened" her relationship with God.

"In the end, it's all about the Gospel," she said. "God has put me here to do something. I've had to ask God to help me forgive this man who treated me so badly. I know he was only doing his job. But I won't let it stop me from being effective."

At the time Nemapare was stopped at the airport, she was wearing a bracelet that said, ÔWhat Would Jesus Do?' Perhaps the answer comes from fellow conference participant, Lidia Garcia from Guatemala. At the close of worship, Garcia told participants "to keep on shining through all the struggles, to keep the passion for God in times of trouble."

*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.


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