“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Thich Nhat Hanh
My colleague Angela, who coordinates this blog, asked me to reflect on my 30+ years with CWS in light of my January 2014 retirement. While that sounds like a long time, it doesn’t feel that way – until Angela reminds me that she wasn’t born when I started working for CWS. Now that’s sobering!
I find it hard to identify a single person or moment that captures the richness of my time with CWS. Instead, what arises is a tapestry of stories - people and moments that represent for me what is most remarkable about CWS. So, in no particular order:
1991. Canberra, Australia. The World Council of Churches Assembly. The Gulf War had just broken out. I was asked to be one of the U.S. representatives to plan a peace vigil along with the Middle East Council of Churches. When I got to the meeting, I was the only U.S. person along with six Orthodox Bishops, including at my right at the table, the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Bagdad – that same Bagdad that my country was currently bombing. For me a vivid lesson is how ecumenical life can bridge borders of nation, tradition, language and forge a vision for a more just and peaceful world.
1996. Rickman Center, Jefferson City, Missouri. I was leading an intergenerational, interfaith global education camp for about 50 people co-sponsored by the CWS Missouri Office and the Rickman Center. It was a wild mix - African American young people from the inner city of St. Louis, Mennonite farmers, Muslims from the Jefferson City Islamic Center, and about ten Guatemala Southern Baptists. My favorite moment: As a Kurdish Muslim read from the Koran and explained its rich meaning for him, his words were translated into Spanish for the Guatemalan Southern Baptists. A glimpse of heaven.
1997. The island of Bongao, the Philippines. On sabbatical, I was hosted by the Medical Mission Sisters, a Catholic religious order that runs a hospital on this remote, overwhelmingly Muslim island. The MMS have been working with the women in the fishing villages of Bongao, training them to be community health workers. These Muslim women are smart, funny, and industrious. After touring with them for three days, they hosted an amazing fish cookout on the beach. As the honored guest, I was offered a real delicacy… the fish’s eyes. I accepted their gift and swallowed (chewing is a mistake). As we debriefed my time with them, they told me, “It seemed like you were one of us.” It remains the greatest compliment I ever received.
2001. CROP Hunger Walk, Modesto, California. Bill Roberts had been a long-time CROP Hunger Walk supporter in our church. In the last couple of years he’d had to participate in the Walk in his wheelchair. After his death, some of his family and friends wanted to keep that tradition alive, so they got sponsors for his wheelchair and pushed it the full Walk route. Bill’s wheelchair was the top fundraiser that year. I know Bill was smiling.
2002. New York City. Touring with the Sinikithemba Choir from Durban, South Africa. All the members of the choir were HIV+. This was the first time these people of the townships had left their country. First airline flight, first visit to the U.S., first time they had seen snow. Their concert tour would take them from a World AIDS Day event at Riverside Church in New York City to performances at Harvard, Yale, Washington D.C. and more. For them, the place they most want to see – Ground Zero in Manhattan. So, we drove all twenty of them to the site, where they gathered by the fencing around the site. They were very quiet for a few moments. And then, they begin to sing and kept singing as a crowd gathered. They sang songs of pain and loss and overcoming. It was beautiful.
Church World Service weaves the lives of hungry and struggling people around the world with the lives of compassionate and committed people in this country. It bridges divides that seem insurmountable elsewhere. It’s been an honor and an extraordinary gift to work for CWS and to experience some of the amazing connections that are the life blood of the agency. As I graduate from staff to supporter I know that I will continue to find through CWS new connections, new possibilities for building a world where there is enough for all. Who could ask for more?
Tom Hampson is CWS Director of Donor Relations. He served for 16 years as the Associate Director of the CWS Office on Global Education. He is the co-author, along with Loretta Whalen, of Tales of the Heart: Affective Approaches to Global Education (1991) and Make a World of Difference: Creative Activities for Global Learning (1989) both published by Friendship Press.