The Rev. Lois Wilson, who served as a member of Canada’s parliament as well as a longstanding church leader, brought delegates to the Centennial Gathering to their feet here Nov. 10 as she accepted the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Award for Christian Unity.

Emblematic of the church unity movement because of her leadership in the United Church of Canada, the Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, Wilson challenged her audience not to hang back in fear when strong action was necessary.

“Never apologize, never explain, never regret,” she said. “Just do it — and let them howl.”

Wilson, Ecumenist-in-Residence at Emmanuel College of the Toronto School of Theology, was the first woman to serve as president of the Canadian Council of Churches in 1976 and as moderator of the United Church of Canada in 1980.

In 1983 she was elected one of the seven presidents of the World Council of Churches and the same year became co-director of the Ecumenical Forum of Canada. In 1998 she was appointed to the senate of Canada, where she served until her retirement in 2002.

Wilson told the delegates and visitors to the Centennial Gathering that her first ecumenical experience was the Student Christian Movement (SCM) when she was in university. She reminded her listeners that the 1910 World Missionary Conference, which the gathering is celebrating, was inspired and organized by the SCM.

“For me, the SCM was the church before the church,” she said.

Wilson’s earliest experience with other Christian communions was with the SCM. “I went to Crete as a youth and attended my first Eastern Orthodox Service.” She fell in love with the incense and bells that accompanied the liturgy. In other communions, she said wryly, “there’s nothing to see, smell or taste. I go to Orthodox services to restore my soul.”

She also described what it was like when Presbyterians and Anglicans first worshipped together.

“We’d sit straight in the pews to show we were good Presbyterians and the Anglicans would lean forward and breathe down out necks.”

Wilson said the ecumenical movement needs to be biblically based. It was at SCM, she said, that she learned the bible has social implications.

A key priority for the movement should be to recruit people under 25, Wilson declared. “My generation of ecumenists are immigrants in their world. But that shouldn’t stop us from going where they meet and letting them set the agenda."

Claire Randall Women’s Leadership Lunch

Two women holding a gift.

NCC Staff Deborah DeWinter and Elizabeth Ferris

Elizabeth Ferris, a former staff member of both the Church World Service and World Council of Churches, now a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, addressed the annual luncheon named for former NCC general secretary Claire Randall

Ferris described the particular impact of disasters on women.

Women die more often than men, she said. Three or four women die for each man who drowns in a flood. “Many women don’t know how to swim,” she said. “Women are taught to wait and they wait too long. Women more apt to be at home (not in fields) where damage is greater in rural areas.”

In addition, pregnancy is a complicating factor in a disaster, and more women commit suicide because of the loss of their livelihood in a disaster, Ferris said.

Ecumenical awards

Two women, one holding an award.

Ellenor Simmons receives an Award of Excellence from CWS staff member Dr. Cheryl Dudley

Ellenor Simmons, director of the Crescent Alliance Recovery Effort (CARE), a long-term recovery initiative of the United Way for Greater New Orleans, received an Award of Excellence for her tireless work following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Responding to the award, Simmons said, “The big question when I was a kid was ‘Where were you on Nov. 22, 1963?’ then ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ Here, it’s ‘Where were you on 8/29 when Katrina hit?’”

Simmons said, “We describe our lives as before-Katrina and after-Katrina.”

The award citation states: “On the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, survivors and those working on their behalf certainly say the work is far from finished ... Ellenor’s passion, uplifting spirit and smile provide hope to individuals and to the community she serves.

Other awards of excellence presented Wednesday evening honored the following ministries:

  • The Louisiana Interchurch Conference — which “strives to proclaim in word and deed to the people, churches and institutions of Louisiana that faith which we hold in common, in the hope that our common witness will grow toward greater unity in Jesus Christ.”
  • The Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast — The Special Commission was formed after the tragedy of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita with a desire to restore and rebuild so that a just society would emerge from the receding waters.
  • Consejo Latinamericano de Iglesias (Latin American Council of Churches) — “Since 1982, the churches and groups that form CLAI have journeyed together with the intention to restore, through concrete acts of witness and service, the unity that has been given to them in Jesus Christ.”