MINNEAPOLIS — The annual General Assembly of the National Council of Churches USA (NCC)  and Church World Service (CWS) commenced Nov. 10 amid sober assessments of national and world conditions and calls for renewal of the churches’ historic commitment to unity.

Twenty-eight of the General Assembly’s 35 member communions had registered delegations, said NCC President-elect Peg Chemberlin, who will be installed Nov. 12 as NCC president for a two-year term. Chemberlain is executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches.

The 2009 General Assembly is presided over by NCC President Archbishop Vicken Aykazian and by Bishop Johncy Itty, chair of the CWS Board of Directors.

The Assembly theme is taken from I Thess. 5:16-18: “Rejoice Always, Pray without ceasing, Give thanks in all circumstances.” Speakers noted that the theme reflects the church’s faith that God has called them together to proclaim the gospel and restore justice to the world.

The staff leaders of the two organizations — the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the NCC, and the Rev. John L. McCullough, executive director and CEO of CWS — each described alarming conditions in which millions live in the nation and around the world and called upon the member communions to recommit themselves to proclaiming this gospel of hope and justice.

“In the U.S. we have entangled ourselves in an almost senseless discussion about healthcare,” McCullough said. “It’s a fascinating discussion, given that the United States has the widest gap of personal wealth between rich and poor of any industrialized nation. I venture that there are none amongst us who would not spend even their last penny to save an ailing child or a dying spouse.”

Yet, McCullough continued, “We tolerate a world where an estimated 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, where every year out of the 350–500 million cases of malaria, there are one million fatalities, 1.8 million children die each year as a result of diarrhea, and another 2.2 million children die because they are not immunized. It seems odd hearing us argue that we cannot afford universal healthcare? Sure, I agree, the poor cannot afford to underwrite the cost, and neither can the middle class, but the rich certainly can.”

McCullough issued a challenge to the delegates: “At Church World Service we pray that the churches will always choose hope over hunger, because like the poor who are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,  we too have hope.”

He added, “Like the poor, we have learned to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstance, because we too want or expect something that to us seems possible or likely: We believe there is enough food that no one should go hungry, enough water that no one should thirst, and enough love that all children should reach their potential. We believe in the right to peace with justice and a place people can call home. We need your help.”

Kinnamon said it was appropriate for Christians to be openly outraged about the state of the world, and he cited some examples:

“Forty-six million Americans, 9 million of them children, have no health insurance,” Kinnamon said. “Be outraged!”

Furthermore, he said, “Before the end of today, 276 people — 57 of them children and teens — will be shot by a gun. Be outraged! There are about 3,000 homeless people in Hennepin County, the site of this assembly, and more than 9,200 in Minnesota, a third of them children. Be outraged! Approximately 11 million people living in the United States are undocumented immigrants with uncertain futures, as the debate on immigration policy reform continues unabated. Be outraged! The people of Cuba suffer under a 50-year economic embargo by the United States, which nevertheless engages in full economic relations with countries like China that have a record of human rights abuses exceeding Cuba’s. Be outraged! While Americans debate the reality of global warming, the rise in sea level due to melting glaciers and thermal expansion of the ocean has forced the 11,000 inhabitants of Tuvalu — a tiny Pacific island between Hawaii and Australia — to abandon their homeland. Be outraged!”

Kinnamon said the Assembly theme “is a wonderful text for stimulating such reflections. On first reading, this passage from I Thessalonians can sound human-centered, as if the most important thing about our faith is what we do: ‘We urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them ... Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’”