by Jim Hodgson

Geneva – I confess there were moments in the first day-and-a-half of this Ecumenical Strategic Forum when I found myself lost in a cloud of words: diakonia, ecumenical diakonia, prophetic diakonia, sustainable development, peace, service, sharing, healing, reconciliation, faith-based/rights-based/justice-based….

All good. Clearly the hardest word for most is diakonia—that New Testament word that refers to service—but every kind of service from the specific sort of trying to help people in need to simply serving the tables. Many Christian denominations have deacons, or diaconal ministers. Sometimes it is a liturgical function: assisting the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist. In some Baptist churches that I know, a deacon is a member of the board who assists with Communion. In the United Church of Canada, diaconal ministers are “commissioned as a distinct from but equal stream within the order of ministry.” In the Anglican Church of Canada the office of “deacon” is sometimes a stepping-stone toward priesthood (transitional diaconate), but there are also those who are ordained to life-long vocational diaconal ministry. In a similar way, the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II has revived the “permanent diaconate” for teachers and preachers of the Gospel. They also preside at celebrations of baptism, funerals, matrimony, and visit the infirm, the imprisoned, and people in need.

The United and Anglican churches have a training centre for diaconal ministry in Winnipeg: the Centre for Christian Studies. In our table group discussion, it was clear that there is a similar mix of applied meanings in churches around the world.

But the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance are reviving the New Testament concept of diakonia as a sort of common vision or theological basis for churches’ engagement in action for sustainable development.

The WCC Vancouver Assembly 1983 affirmed diakonia: “the church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation, is of the very nature of the Church.

Despite differences in the ways the word is used in diverse contexts, there is acceptance of the concept in this gathering. Diakonia can be understood as a worldwide movement of those committed to the vision of Christian service, action, and justice-making. What seems to be more challenging is what we mean when we talk about some related concepts.

One challenge was around talk of holding “faith-based and rights-based” action together. The argument for diakonia was accepted as a faith basis for action, but “rights-based” smacked of non-governmental organization jargon for something that lacked a theological basis, or which carried overtones of western imperial notions that failed to respect traditions and collective identities. Later, someone spoke of “justice-based” action. Later still, a speaker made a pretty fierce defence of human rights, saying that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inspired as much by global faith traditions as it was by Western enlightenment notions of individual human rights.

Where participants came together most strongly was in response to very concrete descriptions of struggle. Fr. James Ovet Latango of the South Sudan Council of Churches—a partner of KAIROS Canada—spoke of his young country’s struggle to overcome violence and its lingering traumas. And my friend Jenny Neme of the Mennonite peace ministry Justapaz in Colombia spoke of her country’s struggle for peace with justice—gender justice and economic justice. Churches that support those values find themselves actively opposed by well-financed megachurches that operate with a very different set of values.

Hospitality and Visitation

Late in the evening of the first day, I sat with friends after a good supper. One of the ecumenical elders was with us. He talked about the essence of diakonia being “hospitality and visitation.” These are ministries that each of us carries out in our “private” lives with minimal resources: receiving friends in need; visiting people who are sick or imprisoned.

Someone asked: “Isn’t visitation part of mission?”

The response: “It’s visitation. Not invasion.”

After a few moments, the distinction softened a bit and friendship resumed. The point of visitation is that we do it without an agenda: we’re not proselytizing or really expecting anything of the other. We visit (or we welcome) simply because we know it is the right thing to do.


by Jim Hodgson

Geneva – During most of this week, I am in Geneva with about 75 other people from around the world to offer up our best thinking about new ways of understanding churches’ participation in development.

ACT Alliance office in Port-au-Prince

Our gathering, entitled the “Ecumenical Strategic Forum on Diakonia and Sustainable Development,” will strengthen the churches’ collective efforts toward accomplishing “the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.” More on that below.

The problem is that four decades of economic growth policies that favour corporate notions of development over other approaches—sustainable, transformative, human, social, or any other modifier—have left us with ever-greater gaps between the rich and poor both among and within countries. The World Council of Churches and ACT Alliance—the two key organizers of this week’s forum—call for a new approach that integrates more dimensions: rising nationalism, climate change, marginalization of non-governmental organizations in some countries, deepening inequality, war, forced migrations, and inclusion of children, youth and women.

They see in the United Nations-defined Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a way forward, and they see in the churches’ own history and theology of diakonia a solid justification for further action.

Diakonia is one of those New Testament Greek words that in the church over time signified either a liturgical function or a specific, service-oriented ministry. In this new millennium, its deeper meaning is being recovered. One background document for this Geneva meeting speaks of diakonia as the “church’s ministry of sharing, healing and reconciliation.”

That definition resonates with me. It seems to open the possibility of understanding some aspects of our work in a clearer way: reconciliation is not just penance or reparation for past wrongs, but an agenda for healing and for transformation of broken relationships. Sharing is not just about imparting technical expertise or sending money, but about honest dialogue about differences of race, class, gender and power.

Those Sustainable Development Goals

As principles or even as guides for action, I support the Sustainable Development Goals. Who but the most reactionary would not? And I agree that the goals are an opportunity for churches and others to hold governments accountable for national strategies of sustainable development. In a way, the SDGs describe what we already do in development. The approach is shared by two of the organizations to which my employer, The United Church of Canada, belongs: ACT Alliance  and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation 

But we have lived through successive and failed “decades of development.” We see governments that refuse to live up to their commitments to the United Nations and to all sorts of multilateral agreements. Extreme poverty, social conflict, and injustice cannot be eliminated, or climate change fixed, without significant structural changes to the global economy.

What I will be looking for in the coming days are practical steps toward building alliances that enable real transformation that benefits the people who usually get left out because of economic calculations.


berthacaceresBertha Cáceres was a world-renowned defender of the Earth and its people. She frequently took the struggles of her Indigenous Lenca people to global stages, from the Quebec People’s Summit in April 2001 to the Vatican in October 2014.

She was shot to death in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning, March 3, in her home in La Esperanza, department of Intibuca, about 180 km west of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Bertha—and yes, according to her friend, the journalist Sandra Cuffe, her name has that most un-Spanish ‘h’ in it—was the coordinator of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

Bertha’s work was supported by people in various networks in which I am involved either personally or institutionally (Common Frontiers, Agricultural Missions and Mining Watch Canada). She is one of those people who is a “partner of our partners,” so Joel Suarez of the Martin Luther King Centre in Havana knew her through the World Social Forum, and Antonio Pacheco and Vidalina Morales of the Santa Marta Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES, in Cabañas, northern El Salvador) knew her through the Central American networks of communities affected by mining.

Bertha and I were both victims of teargasing during protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, but if I met her there, it was among a cast of thousands. But I did meet her ex-husband, Salvador Zúniga (still a collaborator in COPINH) during a visit to ADES in 2013.

berta caceres and francisCOPINH, like ADES, is involved in trinational (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) conversations about the 18,000-km2 Río Lempa river basin that is threatened by mining and hydro-electric developments.

Thirty per cent of Honduran territory is now subject to mineral exploration. At the time we spoke, permits had been issued in all but two of the 18 departments. Canada’s free trade deal with Honduras seemed likely to give Canadian capital an advantage ahead others.

By 2013, there were 70 gold-mining concessions, and four projects underway. Honduras, governed since a 2009 military coup by business-oriented elites, is creating special development regions (REDs) and “charter cities” that essentially suspend Honduran sovereignty for the sake of private investment. Mining royalties, for example would go to the RED, not to the national government.

These were the issues that Bertha and her colleagues talked about wherever they could.

gus-ultimo-momento-1024x444[1]And those issues connected her too with allies in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and so it was that an acquaintance from my years of work in Mexico, Gustavo Castro Soto, was wounded in the same attack that took Bertha’s life.

I met Gustavo several times in the mid and late 90s when I was doing what I could to promote comprehension of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas and of the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Mexico. I saw him as one of the young geniuses who worked with Bishop Samuel Ruiz in the mediation commission that resulted in a comprehensive agreement on Indigenous rights in 1996. (The accord was named for the place where the talks took place, San Andrés Larrainzar, and was later tragically undermined by the government of President Ernesto Zedillo).

Now 52, Gustavo is coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas, an ecological defence group linked to Friends of the Earth. He was in La Esperanza with Bertha to train Indigenous ecological defenders. They were also planning a meeting of the Mesoamerican Movement Against the Extractive Mining Model (called the M4).

Subsequent days have been a blur of urgent calls for action to protect Gustavo. He is an eyewitness to the assassination—but in a country that is manifestly unable to protect witnesses, human rights defenders or just about anyone else. As efforts continued Monday to get him out of the country, judicial authorities required him to return to La Esperanza, again provoking serious concern for his safety, despite accompaniment by officials of the Mexican embassy in Tegucigalpa.


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