It is with great pleasure that we address and greet the participants of the 16th World Council of YMCAs gathered in Durban for the Youth Council and the World Council. The invaluable outreach and manifold work of your councils have stood for many years as a testimony to human cooperation and fraternal concern for an admirable development of a spirit of fellowship throughout the world. Therefore, it is most appropriate that you celebrate this sense of community through the theme of “Ubuntu,” which will define the parameters of your deliberations and worship.
There are three simple, yet fundamental principles that I would like to like to convey to the delegates and members of your historical gathering in relation to your vital theme of “Ubuntu.” All three of these principles are derived from the Christian tradition, particularly as it has been experienced and expressed in the Eastern Orthodox Church over the last twenty centuries.
First, the very concept of God, and the corresponding concept of humankind, is deeply rooted in a spirit of communion and fellowship. The God of the early Christians was a God understood as Trinity, namely as a community of divine beings fully sharing the divine nature. It is this “being as communion” that is also reflected in the understanding of human nature. Humankind is created for fellowship and relationship. The Greek word for person (“prosopon”) precisely indicates a human being looking toward and facing another human being.
Second, the basic teaching of both the Hebrew Covenant and the New Testament is the basic command, embraced and conveyed by Jesus Christ Himself, namely that: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, Jesus, claims that we should adhere to this command to the very end, even unto death. What few people know, however, is that this teaching does not in any way signify that we ought to love others as much as we love ourselves. The rabbinical interpretation of this commandment implies that we ought to love our neighbor because our neighbor reveals our true self. In others, we learn to be ourselves. By loving others, we become more human. As your theme rightly denotes, “a person is a person only through other persons.”
Finally, religious people often wonder what heaven or hell might resemble. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Church understands heaven and hell again in terms of the presence or absence of fellowship and community. There is a beautiful story told by one of the early desert fathers, Macarius of Egypt. When asked what heaven and hell were like, St. Macarius responded by comparing heaven to the ability to look at someone in the eyes; to do so, as he believed, was to taste heaven even in this life. By contrast, he said, hell is like being bound back-to-back with another person for all eternity without ever being able to look at that person in the eyes. How many people experience this kind of hell in our world!
In our day and age, when poverty threatens the lives of so many human beings, when violence tears apart families of nations, when war deprives so many of life and peace, and when environmental pollution destroys the natural world for generations to come, fellowship and community are the only way forward. “Ubuntu” is truly our only hope for the preservation of life and peace through the world, both among people and with the natural environment. The moment we turn our eyes away from each other, the moment we remove our hand from holding the hand of the other, the very fabric of life and peace are torn apart.
I would like to leave you with a final image. Close your eyes and imagine this picture. Remember that when your hands are clenched tightly, you cannot share your wealth with your brother and sister. When your hands are clenched tightly, you cannot hold the hand of your neighbor. And when your hands are clenched tightly, you cannot stretch them out in prayer to the Almighty, who is the source of all life and peace.
May God bless you in your deliberations.