Jim Winkler address to Liberian Council of Churches 32nd Assembly Monrovia, Liberia – November 28, 2018
I greet you in the name of the strong name of Jesus Christ. Thanks to LCC President Brown and Bishop Temple of AACC. My flight was cancelled twice but I am here and I know Jesus meant for me to be here.
I celebrate your work to consolidate national reconciliation and unity. It is vital for sustainable development. We have work to do in the US, as well, for national reconciliation and unity because we are divided.
I want you to know we are working to protect the status of Liberians in the United States and I am sorry our government is threatening to deport several thousand Liberians next year. We will work with the new Congress and the administration to protect their status.
We stand with you because the Bible commands us to welcome and care for the sojourner and immigrant and refugee and we have ample resources to ensure Liberians in the US have a safe and secure life.
The world is experiencing an unprecedented migration crisis with more than 760 million people on the move. While some countries have offered a place of safety others have responded with xenophobic and racist policies including my own country, at this time. Just two days ago women and children fleeing from political violence and gangs in Central America were tear gassed on the border of Mexico. There are terrible pictures of them running away.
Jesus said, “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” We are asking our congregations to arrange meetings with elected officials so they can urge them to support refugees and immigrants. We are asking President Trump to rescind all policies that are negatively impacting refugees and immigrants and to affirm welcoming policies and a robust refugee resettlement program. We also urge President Trump to align the United States with relevant international treaties and agreements that relate to migration including the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Global Compacts no Orderly and Regular Migration and Refugees.
1 John says, “Let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action.” We want action.
I serve today as president of the National Council of Churches in the USA. Our council was established in 1908 and we now have 38 member denominations consisting of 30 million Christians in more than 100,000 local churches. Seven African American Baptist and Methodist churches, nine Orthodox churches, peace churches, and the mainline Protestant churches make up the Council.
We seek Christian unity, we carry out interreligious dialogues, we publish the Bible and the International Sunday School lessons and we raise our voice in the halls of power in the name of Jesus as advocates for justice and peace.
As stated in 2 Corinthians, “All this is from God who reconciled himself to us through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” I stand before you as an ambassador of Christ. I stand before you as a child of God. Together we proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior. We challenge and counsel one another in mutual accountability as a witness to the unity of the church. We share resources for unity and mission. We practice and advocate careful stewardship of God’s creation. We act as responsible servants to people in need.
The ecumenical movement is a cause among the churches to fellowship together, to engage in common activities of witness and service and to advance toward the goal of visible unity. The ecumenical requires spiritual maturity and discipline and financial resources.
I am the son, nephew, and brother of pastors who have served Methodist and Baptist and Disciples congregations across the United States for the past 60 years. My great grandfather, Christopher Phillip Winkler, migrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bavaria following the revolution of 1848. He settled in Memphis, TN and there he taught music at a Catholic girls school, played the organ at a synagogue, and was choirmaster at St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Christopher was a Lutheran who married a Scots Irish Cumberland Presbyterian. They raised their six sons as Methodists.
So I have been part of the ecumenical movement even before I was born. I have been nurtured and prepared to lead the National Council of Churches. When I was in college in the 1970s my study was African history and I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. After college I asked to enter the mission field in Africa, but I was sent to work with an ecumenical organization, the Pacific Conference of Churches.
There I learned about coconut theology. The God of Jesus is the God of the living and the coconut is the tree of life. Every single part of the coconut tree has a useful purpose. Pacific Islanders see Jesus as the coconut tree rather than the vine. The meat of the young coconut can be the bread and the milk is the wine.
The ecumenical movement began about 150 years ago with the creation of the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the World Student Christian Movement. Because young people were not interested in the denominational squabbles and rivalries of church elders and decided to work together. This is why we are here today.
The elders decided to follow suit and began talking and working for the cause of Christ, but the European and American churches saw that cooperation as a means to divide up Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the native peoples of North America. There was a colonialist and imperialist aspect to the ecumenical movement we must name. But we have grown and been challenged and the movement continues to develop and mature.
In the US, the African American churches challenged the white churches to confront racism and the legacy of slavery. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed our assembly in 1957 and he spoke about the Christian way of life in human relations. He said, “The problem of race is indeed America’s greatest moral dilemma. The churches are called on to recognize the urgent necessity of taking a forthright stand on this. If we are to remain true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ we cannot rest until segregation and discrimination are banished from every area of American life. I am aware of the fact that many churches have already taken a stand.”
He said, “This great body of the National Council of Churches has condemned segregation over and over again and requested its constituent denominations to do likewise. The sublime statements of the major denominations on the question of human relations move all too slowly to the local churches and actual practice. All too many ministers are still silent while evil rages. It may well be that the greatest tragedy in this period of social transition is not the glaring noisiness of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people. It may be that our generation will have to repent not only for the diabolical actions and vitriolic words of the children of darkness but also for the crippling fears and tragic apathy of the children of light.”
Dr. King’s words are true today. We been working for reconciliation for so many years and we have a long way yet to go. Our advocacy for racial justice led to us being described as troublemakers, but I am proud our churches persevered in working to end racism. The legacy of slavery and racism that has plagued my nation has placed an enormous challenge before the churches to be agents of justice and reconciliation.
Then we opposed the Vietnam War. Then we opposed apartheid. Then we said no to the nuclear arms race. Then we said we would remain faithful sisters and brothers to our Christian brothers and sisters in Cuba and North Korea and the USSR and China and for that we were denounced as communists. But I tell you all along we decided to follow Jesus. There is no turning back.
We support the rights of immigrants not because we want cheap labor but because we remember we were once sojourners and God commands us to love the refugee and immigrants. We oppose the death penalty not because we want murderers to run free but because we believe in the redemptive power of God even for those who have committed the gravest of sins. We believe war is incompatible with the teaching and example of Christ not because we desire for dictators and military aggressors to rule the world but because as disciples of Christ we are called to love our enemies and to serve as reconcilers in the midst of conflict.
In the book of Exodus, Aaron did not speak against those who were making a golden calf. Maybe he was afraid it would be controversial. Maybe he was concerned he would hurt peoples’ feelings. But during that moment of crisis and at a time when God’s people were longing to return to the false security of slavery and bondage in Egypt, Aaron didn’t speak. After that incident, notice that Aaron never speaks again in the Bible. He’s still there, but he doesn’t say anything. His failure to speak at the right time results in him losing his voice entirely.
This is always our challenge. If we fail to speak in the midst of poverty and climate change and other problems, we’ll still be here but we will lose our voice. But we have courage because Jesus is our Lord and Savior, our Rock and Foundation, our Redeemer and the center of our lives. He is the one who holds us and binds us together across nations, languages, ethnicities, and all barriers.
Jesus is the one who speaks to our deepest longings and needs. Our faith in Jesus has brought us together in fellowship and love. And yet somehow too many of us have lost our focus on Jesus and our enthusiasm for us.
But Jesus waits for us. He is our healer and teacher and our countercultural leader for a revolutionary change in human values. As we draw closer in today’s world to people of other faiths and develop greater understanding of other sacred texts and teachings we need not lose our love and passion for Jesus.
You here today are leaders of the church in Liberia. You represent its diversity. You have responsibility to keep your eyes on the big picture of Jesus and the details of the work of the Liberian Council of Churches. I pray you will remain committed to Christ, to the ecumenical enterprise and the search for unity among all Christians.
In the 24th chapter of the book of Joshua, the story is told that Joshua gathers together all the tribes of Israel and the leaders, the elders, the judges, the officers, so that he can remind them of all that God has done for them. God took Abraham through the land of Canaan and gave him Isaac and to Isaac he gave Jacob and Esau. Then he sent Moses and Aaron to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt and he kept the Egyptians from pursuing them. And after 40 years in the wilderness, God brought them to the land of the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, the Hittites and handed them over to the Jews.
Joshua reminded the people of Israel that God gave them the land on which they had not labored and towns and homes they had not built and vineyards an olive groves they had not planted. Joshua said to them, “Now therefore revere the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and faithfulness. Put away the gods of your ancestors worshiped in Egypt and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord then choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The same challenge is before us today. Will we honor and love God? Will we obey God and care for the sick, the poor, the needy, or will we serve the gods of materialism and nationalism and militarism and seek riches for ourselves and for our nation to be over and above other nations? Will we see to it that the refugee and the immigrant and the sojourner is cared for or will be build walls and separate parents from their children?
The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants. Here are a few examples: “The Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19, CEB). “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9, NLT). The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49, NIV).
That’s why we are speaking for Liberians living in the United States. That’s why we have resettled millions of refugees in the United States since the end of World War II.
During the First World War, my great grandfather, Eugene Winkler, was a doctor in Arkansas. He was proud of his German ancestry, but this became suspect because of the war. The local townspeople insisted Dr. Winkler raise the American flag in his front yard each morning to prove his loyalty to the United States rather than to Kaiser Wilhelm.
The duty to raise the flag fell to my then teenage grandfather who was also named Eugene Winkler. I do not know if my great grandfather and my grandfather felt persecuted or humiliated, but I do know my grandfather did not learn the importance of tolerance for he became a part of the Ku Klux Klan, a viciously racist organization, just a few years later.
My father, yet another Eugene Winkler, did not follow in the example of his father. The church of Jesus Christ kept my father from becoming a racist. When he was in his late teens, my father went to a camp for young Christian leaders. Along the way, his car broke down and when he was taken to the cabin he would be sharing with three other young men he fell asleep.
When he woke up, for the first time in his life he found the young man in the next bed was an African American. Not just anybody; rather it was the Rev. James Lawson who went on to become one of the most significant leaders of the civil rights movement. Rev. Lawson was a student of Mahatma Gandhi and learned and taught nonviolence civil disobedience techniques to Dr. King, to John Lewis, and to young people who participated in sit ins at segregated lunch counters across the South.
Rev. Lawson had a profound impact on Dr King and on my father, as well. I grew up in the church and in an anti-racist home.
Know that I do and will continue to keep you and the Liberian Council of Churches and the nation of Liberia in my thoughts and prayers. Know that we will stand with you.
Perfect, complete love drives out fear. God’s love is perfect but God does not require us to be perfect. God’s love sees us for who we are. God’s love is committed to our growth. God’s love is somewhat and sometimes uncomfortable. God’s love comforts us through our fears.
We can’t turn away from the world because God’s love compels us to action. To feel something beyond our own lives is God’s love compelling us to do something. It is not enough simply for us to have good intentions. We must put our faith into action.
Over and over, throughout the holy scriptures the story of the unfaithfulness of Gods people is told. God repeatedly warns and punishes the people of Israel but again and again God reconciles with them and re-establishes a covenant. But the cost of disobedience is real. Israel is punished for its transgressions—famine and pestilence visit the land. Invading armies lay siege and overrun the nation. Leaders are carried off into exile.
We should learn the lessons of repeated disobedience. When we seek riches at the expense of the last, the least, and the lost God takes notice. When we spend our national resources on weapons and spies rather than on programs of social uplift we risk bankrupting ourselves morally and financially.
Unity is God’s gift to us.
Unity is Christ’s desire for us.
Unity is our task.
Our world is fluid and changing. It is marked by joy and heartache. It is in the grip of hunger-making, war-making, and desert-making systems. But we are a resurrection people because of Jesus. Jesus brings us together. Let us advance the cause of Christ as we go forth in the work for national reconciliation and unity.