Words of Welcome
Let me at the very outset, on behalf of the Officers, the General Secretary and the Executive Committee, offer you a very warm welcome to the 37th General Assembly (GA) of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). This is indeed a historic moment! As we meet here in this beautiful city of Berlin, we also celebrate 127 years of the life and ministry of the Federation. We have been in a transition mode since the GA in Bogota and the challenges caused by the pandemic did not make the transition easy either. We had to hold an extraordinary virtual GA last year to elect the new team of officers. The executive committee that met in November, 2021, approved the proposal to hold an in-person General Assembly in Berlin from 23 June-1July, 2022. And here we are, in spite of all the the pandemic related challenges that we had to encounter in this journey towards the GA in Berlin. The General Assembly has been a great tradition since the inception of the Federation in 1895 and the GA, as you are well aware, is the most representative and the highest decision making body of the Federation. With the representation of more than 100 student Christian movements from around 94 countries, the 37th GA here will review the global situation of the Federation, reflect on contemporary challenges and prospects of member movements and regions; evaluate the work of the Executive Committee and consider and decide on issues around governance including certain constitutional amendments, hopefully in a spirit of consensus.
The Global Context
We live in a world where injustice is institutionalised, especially as a result of the global embrace of the ideology of neo-liberal market economy. Economic globalisation continues to exert a sweeping influence on almost all aspects of life, particularly of those of youth and students. A culture of fear and “hatred of the other” is growing worldwide at an alarming pace and it gets manifested in manifold ways such as wars, violence, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, sexism, racism, casteism and so on. Climate change, itself a consequence of insatiable human greed and indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources today poses grave threat to the survival of the planet and raises serious challenges for the survival of humanity, especially the most vulnerable sections on the planet, the poor, indigenous communities, and particularly the womenfolk of these vulnerable sections of our society. Fascism and totalitarianism seem to be taking deep roots in several cultures and countries. The pandemic in the form of COVID-19 has quite literally shut down human life everywhere, at least for a certain period of time, posing new questions and challenges for the way life and death are perceived in a divided and unjust world order. A new politics of death (“necropolitics”, as Achille Mbembe would call it) by which hegemonic systems, particularly those based on racism, decide as to who should live and who should die in today’s world, is being forced on the marginalised sections of our society worldwide. These and many other challenges have serious ramifications for everyone particularly for students and youth.
We are indeed living through extraordinary times in an extraordinary world. As Zizek would put it, the pandemic has shaken the world and it would be a futile exercise to try and go back to the “old normal”. The post-COVID context requires new visions and new utopias; new visions of heaven and earth and novel forms of global communion and solidarity. These signs of our times seem to demand an alternate vision and a fresh orientation from the ecumenical movement which, I believe, the Federation is uniquely poised to provide.
WSCF: Towards a New Vision of the Ecumenical Movement
“Church ahead of the church” has been a popular expression of the visionary imagination about the Federation during its formative years. Living out this self-identity and self-understanding, the Federation along with other youth movements such as the YMCA and the YWCA has been instrumental in pioneering the modern ecumenical movement. It coincided with a particular time in history when Western colonialism and the colonial missionary enterprise had held enormous sway over the rest of the world. The legacy of imperialism that the modern ecumenical movement has inherited has remained with it all along, albeit in different measures during various periods in history and today its influence is manifest through the dominant language and logic of the Corporate world, the new incarnation of the old empire. As a consequence, the ecumenical organisations have by and large lost their prophetic cutting edge, their “movement” character. They appear to be suffering from intellectual, visionary, and prophetic bankruptcies. Their language has become stale and no longer strikes chords with the aspirations of the marginalised, especially those of the young generation including students. In this context, the challenge of the Federation is to transform itself into an “ecumenical movement ahead of the ecumenical movements”. It has to be based on a vision of an alternate world that is in contrast to the ideological orientation of the “oikoumene “ with its roots in the empire- then and now. It has to be a movement from below that anchors itself in people’s struggles for justice, dignity and freedom. This is crucial as only the marginalised have the moral stamina to bring about transformation and social change. The WSCF must be an expression of this vision of a movement from the margins.
Youth and students and the Ecumenical Movement
The WSCF that has pioneered the modern ecumenical movement should in today’s context play a similar role in offering an alternative vision of ecumenism by reclaiming the prophetic orientation and emphasis. The Federation with its vision of a subversive movement can and will provide this alternative expression of the ecumenical movement. From this perspective, the marginalised and the excluded would be the ones who will hold the agency and leadership of the movement. Youth and students will assume the agency in this alternative movement that the Federation stands for. According to the United Nations World Youth Report (2018), there are about 1.2 billion youth (between 15-24 years old) in the world today and they make 16% of the total global population. Out of them, about 156 million youth are either from low income background or they suffer from poverty and similar economic backwardness. Approximately 71 million are unemployed. The digital divide among young people is ever widening. All these make young people and students, especially those from socially and economically marginalised sections even more vulnerable and marginalised. This also gets reflected in universities and campuses. A major conflict in the campuses today seems to be around the very notion of the “student” and correspondingly of the “university “ as well. The neo-liberal market ideology tends to condition and mould students to be self-centred and self-absorbed “buyers” of education without any sense of social commitment. In other words, education is perceived as a commodity that is sold and bought in the market of universities. The rise of populism and fascism has also influenced the morality of the university and the academia including the content of the curricula in a regressive manner. Yet, there are signs of hope in the form of youth and student uprisings against such fascist and Corporatist invasion of our educational systems in different parts of the world as we have seen in Hong Kong and India a few years ago. The WSCF, with its inherent concept of the student as a socially sensitive and committed person must approach education as a means of building up an egalitarian, just and inclusive society. This is where “formation”, both Biblical and ecumenical, assumes significance and contemporary relevance. Contextual Bible studies and schools of ecumenical formation have been important components of the ethos and praxis of the WSCF for ages. This tradition needs to be reclaimed wherever it is lost. We will make every effort, through the Commission on Bible and Theology and with the support and involvement of our senior friends to revive the schools of ecumenical formation where prophetic spirituality is taught through concrete involvement in grass root realities. What makes the youth and students what they really are is the spirit of altruism and idealism. The Federation needs to and will therefore invest on youth and student formation from a Biblical, prophetic and ecumenical perspective.
If we are serious about providing such an alternative vision and praxis of a prophetic movement, a movement of the margins, a movement from below, a movement led by students and young people, then the Federation has to transform itself radically. Our structures of governance need to undergo important changes. Global accountability, financial transparency and collective responsibility are values that should undergird the way we function both as a global federation and regions. The Federative Covenant that we have been reflecting on therefore is of crucial importance if we are to actualise the alternative vision of the ecumenical movement that the Federation is called to exemplify. The New Strategic Plan is aimed at this transformative vision about the Federation. We need to reimagine the interconnectedness of the global, the regional and the local in new and creative ways. We need to “globalise” or “centralise” the values of inter regional solidarity, accountability and transparency in all aspects of the life and work of the Federation. Yes, the Federation is our regions as the saying goes, but the regions are not islands for the global family of the Federation. We need to bring in the ethos of “Ubuntu”, the ethos of interdependence and interconnectedness when it comes to the relationship between the IRO, Regions and our national movements. Our theme of the GA, I am sure, will help us move in this direction.
Rejoice in Hope: Young People Journeying Together Towards Justice and Peace
The theme of the GA is based on Romans 12:2 where the theme of hope is integrally linked with the virtues of love, care, compassion, justice and hospitality. This is particularly pertinent in a global context that has been gripped by the forces of fear, hatred and death. In Genesis 18, we have a beautiful story of Abraham and Sara receiving three strangers in their tent. Offering hospitality to “ the other” is interpreted as receiving God itself here as the three aliens here also could represent the Trinitarian God. One of the Greek words for hospitality is “philoxenia” which means “love for the other” and it’s antonym is xenophobia. As a movement of hope, the WSCF is called to spread love in a world that is being marred by hatred and fear.
Hope, in the Biblical tradition, is also perceived as a special privilege and right of the oppressed and marginalised. It is the poor who will hope for a better world where there will not be any starvation and suffering. The hope for the reign of God, the new heaven and new earth, where there is justice and dignity is the unique privilege of the poor and the oppressed. Resurrection is the greatest source of hope for the suffering and the needy. Margins are the well springs of this hope that is in Christ Jesus.
The WSCF as an Easter movement, a movement of Resurrection, is called to be an antiseptic and transforming presence in the world. As a movement of hope and life, led by students and youth, we shall spread love, justice and hope in this world. Various movements for justice and human/environmental rights, led by student and youth all over the world are a great source of inspiration and the Federation will give expression to those initiatives and try to multiply them. The agency and leadership of students and youth in these progressive movements for change is the greatest hope that we can rejoice in.
Let me conclude my remarks by expressing my appreciation and gratitude to my colleagues in the Presidium, the Vice chairpersons, the Treasurer and the General Secretary in particular for their co operation and support. My thanks also go to the members of the Executive Committee and the Assembly Planning Committee including the ESG for their leadership and contributions in organising this historic GA.
A special word of gratitude to the Senior friends who are here and those who joined the fellowship online for their constant support and solidarity. Your accompaniment in this journey and the journey ahead is of great significance and value.
The Centennial Fund merits special mention here. Without the support and blessings of the CF, the GA would not have been possible. We cannot thank the CF enough for the concern and care that the Federation receives from it. We also would like to acknowledge our appreciation and thanks to all our partners in common witness for their financial support and partnership in mission.
To the staff colleagues in the IRO and our regional executive secretaries we owe a great deal. Your hard work is much appreciated. I also thank the delegates, guests, Advisors, resource persons, observers, stewards and the members of the ESG for their presence, participation and leadership in the GA.
Above all, let me thank God, the source of all hope for blessing us with wisdom, understanding and discernment in organising this historic event and it is my prayer that we will be guided by the divine presence and counsel throughout this GA and beyond.
I thank you for your patient listening
Let us Rejoice in Hope