Students from Candler School of Theology, Duke Divinity School, Gammon Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary became symbols of hope for planners and leaders of a three-day peace conference.
Time after time, speakers scanned the audience and spoke gratefully of seeing young faces at a gathering that tackled the tough questions of war and peace and the church's role in peacemaking in a violent world.
"I am grateful to the lives of students who are such an inspiration to me," said the Rev. Peter Storey, a former Methodist bishop in South Africa, at the opening of the 2008 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference.
The students were equally inspired to hear Storey and other peace advocates talk about the biblical and theological foundations for peacemaking.
Sarah Moody, who soon will graduate from Duke Divinity School, told panelists at the end of the event she is anxious about going to her first church appointment as a young person passionate about social issues. "How can you be young and still be heard?" she asked.
"Never lose that passion; the passion has been given to you by God," Storey answered. "The church is not a democracy; it is not a debating society. It is a place where we ordain certain people to stand with the authority of God in our pulpits and say, 'Thus sayeth the Lord.'"
Love your people and they will be able to hear you when you have to speak the hard words of Jesus, he said. He cautioned against abusing that authority which he called a "holy responsibility."
"Never worry about where you are going to be appointed. Be one of those pastors that is going to take their congregation to kingdom ground rather than pious slush that passes for religion in many communities," Storey said.
Jim Winkler, who heads the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the church's social action agency, encouraged the young people to take advantage of their youth, energy, enthusiasm and learning.
"Constantly teach your people, expose them to different points of view, teach them the Social Principles" of The United Methodist Church, Winkler said.
The Jan. 31-Feb. event was organized by a grassroots group of United Methodist peace advocates. More than 400 people attended.
Laura Levens, another Duke student, said she is a Baptist who chose to attend the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference over a national Baptist convention happening at the same time.
"I actually chose Peter Storey and Jan Love (dean of Candler School of Theology) over Bill Clinton and other wonderful speakers," she said, laughing. She said she appreciated the way the conference was built on a biblical foundation.
"This passion for peace at this conference is based on faith and God and faith in God's kingdom," she said. "It doesn't seem to be a struggling body who thinks if they do not act the world will fall apart, but they already see God's presence in the world."
Mary Coffman is preparing for an international relations fellowship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with the Rotary Peace Fellowship. She came to the conference to hear "what the plans and where the hearts were in the community."
"The United Methodist Church is important to me as a home, a sanctuary," she said. "But it has been difficult to rank in importance with my dreams and hopes for social justice in the world. I have learned I am not alone. There is a strong community working toward justice and transformation."
Bertrand Griffin of Baton Rouge, La., came seeking information from "reliable sources" about the Iraq war. "Sometimes when you watch newscasts, you are not sure you get the true story. And you are always wondering what is left out," he said.
"One of the things I have taken away from this conference is a directed passion, a confirmation that this is a calling not only worthy but absolutely necessary," said Anna Layman, a Duke student from Pennsylvania. "This is an impossible goal, but it is goal with a future. There is a path being laid out, and we are privileged to be part of that."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.