When the Spirit Surprises

It was the 1960s. Teenagers in Rome were as much into psychedelic music, mind-tripping drugs and hippy music as they were in LA or London. But not all. Countering the counter-culture, a group of young people in Rome eschewed the activities of their friends and sought a closer walk with Christ. Hungry for learning of the Bible, in quest for meaningful prayer and convinced that caring for the poor was a Christian mandate, they began to form around able and critical thinker Andrea Riccardi, himself then only in his teens.

Today the Community of Sant’Egidio has spread its influence and ministry to many in several countries, numbering some 70,000 as associates. It is made up of professionals who believe personal conversion is a beginning step to this walk of faith. It is not a religious order and being Roman Catholic is not a requirement, although most members are. They sign no covenant and make no explicit promises but all understand that daily prayer, Bible study and regular time spent with the marginalized and poor are what makes them as persons and communities vital in their walk with Christ and effective in their witness to the life of the Gospel.

As it grew out of its early beginnings, peacemaking naturally blossomed from its spiritual roots. The savage civil war of Mozambique – a Portuguese speaking country in southeast Africa – lingered with over one million dying and five million displaced. Andrea Riccardi and others turned their attention to this country and over painstaking negotiations brought the two sides together and on October 4, 1992 sitting cross the table from each other in the world centre of Sant’Egidio in downtown Rome, the government and rebels signed a peace accord that lifted that country from its many years (1977 to 1992) of blood letting.

There are moments when one’s fences are pushed, staples snap, fence wire strains by way of new ideas and an expanding fraternity. Let it be understood: I am rooted in an Evangelical faith, I’ve been shaped by the Spirit’s new birth, I’m trained to exegete biblical text and language and continue to be nurtured by a dear and valued heritage. Yet I’ve met new friends who vision Christ as our center and the Spirit in his power.

Neurologist Dr. Leonardo Gialloreti introduced me two years ago to this community. Professional in his career, the vision of this praying/Bible studying/caring for the poor/peacemaking community fills his life. Watching and listening to him and his colleagues at a recent conference gave me visual understandings of how the Spirit builds in places, and with people whose hearts are hungry and open.

Their annual conference held this year in Rome was by location framed by the most impressive backdrop one might imagine and given pomp and circumstance as no other city affords. But such embellishments or what some might call distractions could not keep me from feeling the power of their vision and mobility of their strategy.

The opening night, leader Andrea Riccardi put me on the edge of my seat: he said…

Our horizons have become incredibly wide with globalization. This widening questions religions. If the Latin etymology of the word “religion” derives from tying, the opposite of “religion” is not disbelief, but loneliness. The self-sufficiency of believers turns into blindness. But also avarice: not to make the spiritual and human resources growing in the womb of a religion available to others. And laziness: sometimes, when you can trace your own history far back, you feel you have the right to be lazy in today’s history….

During these three days of prayer, dialogue, conversation and public worship, ideas slowly crystalized during moments and in places of observation and reflection.

First, there was no obscuring of their hearts. They love Jesus and often and loudly did so confess. Second they had no hesitation in reaching to the highest political levels to enact their vision of peace and spiritual well being.

While patient in process they expect results. Their much dialogue isn’t an end in itself. They look to substantive changes, work towards that and refuse to abide in the ambivalence of words.

Fourth they are unafraid of ideas. From wherever and from whomever. They invite people of all faiths, ideas, and perspectives to lay it out for all to see. Defensiveness has never been a fruit of the Spirit and they surely don’t intend to try to make it so.

They refuse to be confined by liberal/conservative rubrics. The canopy of creation they claim and all that is good and worthy as their inheritance.

To my surprise they lifted the word “dialogue” to a new level. I’ve tired of the word, especially as used in mushy theological conversation when it seems expected that biblical commitment is reduced, void then of Christological presence or transcendent power. Much like the UN’s dialogues — replays of ineptitude, a pretense of progress and much bureaucratic bumbling, leaving more dead on the roads of war, avarice and corruption.

This was different. I left with a new vision of what honest conversation – yes dialogue – can do: attracting people with divergent views, refusing to let differences of life, belief and practice stall us in finding solutions.

As Abraham was invited to dialogue with God on sparing Sodom, he did. Paul listened first to his hearers and by so doing got a hearing in Athens.

My new friends at Sant’Egidio give open and clear demonstration of how the Spirit engages people to solve real problems – a worldwide witness to the presence and workings of the resurrected Christ.

Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance
October 2013

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