Walking together: Companion relationships strengthen ties, transform lives

December 20, 2007

One of the joys of Christmas is giving and receiving gifts. For decades, Anglicans in dioceses and parishes worldwide have shared -- as more than just a seasonal standard -- their gifts of friendship, knowledge and mutual support. They say the rewards of companion relationships are countless.

For Sandy Smock of San Gabriel, California, it began with a trip to the Holy Land as a Lenten discipline.

Dr. Ricardo Reznichek of Hermosa Beach, California, responded to a bishop's call and visited Selena in western Belize, a border farming community experiencing an influx of Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigration.

For both, personal connections rippled into changed hearts, transformed lives and sister-parish affiliations. Eventually, the Diocese of Los Angeles began an official companion relationship with the Diocese of Jerusalem and an unofficial relationship with the diocese of Belize.

"It often begins with informal connections," says Los Angeles Canon Lydia Lopez, associate for communications and public affairs. "These partnerships don't revolve around money but around relationships."

The Diocese of Los Angeles, which also enjoys an official relationship with El Salvador, has "unofficial" relationships with Mexico, Seychelles, and dioceses in Ghana, Burundi, Tanzania, Northern Uganda and Kenya. "We are taught and enriched by them about life and hopefully we can enrich their lives not only with our resources but with our companionship," says Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno.

Common mission
First formed in 1968 to strengthen ties between Episcopal and Anglican dioceses throughout the world, the companion diocese program unites partners in common mission and prayer.

To date, hundreds of formally recognized and unofficial companion relationships exist between dioceses and parishes throughout the 164 countries in 38 provinces that make up the Anglican Communion. More than 80 percent of the Episcopal Church's 110 dioceses are engaged in at least one official companion relationship.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference encouraged all dioceses to develop companion relationships "as part of the process of developing the crosscultural nature of the communion." By the next conference, which meets in 2008, every diocese was to have made "a serious effort to identify one or more dioceses as a companion, in formal and informal ways." Despite Lambeth's good intentions, many dioceses still are seeking a companion.

"It is in our soul to do this," says Brother James Teets, manager of partnership services in the Episcopal Church's Office of Anglican and Global Relations. "We are seeking to fulfill a call to share what we have with others, to find out what other people are experiencing and to find out what we can do to help."

Mutual ministry, common prayer
Every Sunday, friends in the dioceses of Brechin in Scotland, Swaziland in Southern Africa and Iowa in the United States pray for one another. They have done so for nearly 20 years as partners in a three-way companion relationship.

"Prayer is a wonderful thing, but it is so enriched when a picture appears in your mind -- in your prayer life -- of people around the world," says Teets. "It makes real the notion that we are one family. The people are what it is about: the sharing, the meeting, the extending of love."

The Brechin-Iowa-Swaziland partnership forges new friendships with a variety of family visits and youth-group pilgrimages, while fund-raising events support feeding programs and school fees for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, a major killer in the sub-Saharan Swaziland diocese.

"Our ministry together is never a one-way street, but mutual," says Iowa Bishop Alan Scarfe. "It is most important that we work together in those direct actions of the Spirit, which brings about new birth and reconciliation with God and one another."

Another three-way partnership, among the dioceses of Indianapolis, Brasilia (Brazil) and Bor (Sudan), "has enriched us in ways we could not have imagined," says Indianapolis Bishop Cate Waynick. "We have been privileged and humbled to share significant moments of each other's lives. We have blessed schools and new chapels. I have ordained new priests for Bor, four of whom are women."

While all of this is worthwhile, "it is not the best of it," Waynick says. "The deep affection we have for each other is undeniable. The struggles of the landless peoples in Brazil speak a message of hope to the Sudanese. The prolonged suffering of the Sudanese speaks to all of us about the love and suffering of God in Christ.

"The inability to make all things new for our dear brothers and sisters is a lesson in humility and holy impatience for us," she adds. "But together we are black, brown and white, north and south, east and west, male and female -- an image of the body of Christ -- which we celebrate and cherish."

Creating opportunities
The initial period of companion relationships is typically five years with some dioceses committing to periods of extension.

The dioceses of Maine and Haiti have "walked together" in companionship since 2002 and recently extended their diocesan partnership for a further five years. Visits from Haitian clergy and a choir have brought the vibrant Haitian culture to Maine, says Brenda Hamilton, a General Convention deputy and Standing Committee member who has visited Haiti twice.

"God has drawn people into ministry even beyond the parameters of the Haiti-Maine relationship," Hamilton says, noting that several individuals have worked with ecumenical projects from vacation Bible schools and medical missions to fostering children brought to the United States for medical treatment.

"It is tempting for Americans to think of companion relationships in simply financial terms; as outreach only, rather than exchange," says Hamilton. "But Jesus was not in the business of handing out shekels. Rather, Jesus was intimately involved in creating opportunities for touch, for healing and for grace to happen in the exchange between human souls."

Each diocese engages with its companion diocese in unique ways, often determined by the specific cultural or contextual climate. Typically, visits by bishops, clergy and laity are encouraged in both directions throughout the duration of the partnership, with some dioceses committed to youth, women's or clergy exchanges. Medical teams, work camps, cultural events and educational opportunities often provide an important source of vitality for both dioceses. Common prayer and prayer cycles are considered essential aids for each companion to acknowledge partnership and mission in one another.

For Hamilton, the ministry shared "is simply one of 'being' together -- of shared experiences, friendship and worship," she says. "Anyone returning from Haiti will speak of their life as transformed."

Being humbled, transformed
The Companion Covenant between the Moru people in Lui, Sudan, a southern diocese of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, and the Diocese of Missouri has helped to "build meaningful relationships among congregations, clergy and lay people in Sudan and Missouri, while attempting to create awareness that Southern Sudan is still recovering from the 'Darfur conditions' its people have experienced during the genocidal civil war of the last several decades," says Sandra Coburn, canon of communications for the Missouri diocese.

The partnership has enabled more than 20 missioners from Missouri to visit this village of 6,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa.

"It is not possible to hear the stories of the Moru people and see how their deep faith has sustained them -- during this conflict in the face of every atrocity -- without being humbled and transformed," says Missouri Bishop George Wayne Smith.

For the Rev. Stephen Dokolo, a Sudanese seminarian who attends Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis and is sponsored by the Missouri diocese, the best part of this relationship "is that others have come in Christ and visited us in Lui, and witnessed the hardship and disillusionment and…have prayed for us."

"But," Dokolo adds, "we know that God has heard our prayers when we see the work you have done with us -- we have water now from three wells, we have education provided, materials, computers ... [We] see truly where 'God happens' in this relationship."

In support of the more than 2.5 million AIDS orphans in Tanzania, the dioceses of New York and Central Tanganyika partner through Carpenter's Kids, a program linking parishes in a mutual relationship of prayer, communication and exchange that enriches children's lives in one of the world's poorest countries.

The ministry is "transformative" for parishes in New York, says Suffragan Bishop Catherine Roskam. "It casts a clear light on the sinfulness of our culture's consumerism in the face of the world's extreme poverty, and at the same time it gives us a concrete way to do something life-changing in partnership with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Tanzania. We set out to change the lives of children living in extreme poverty but have found our own lives transformed as well."

For Central Tanganyika Bishop Mdimi Mhogolo, Carpenter's Kids is an answer to prayer and a real ministry to the needs of the children in his diocese. Through the program, children "are now going to school; they are confident; they are part of the society now where they feel loved and cared for," Mhogolo says. "We are giving them hope, because it is only through education that they will be able to build up their lives."

The program was initiated when Mhogolo met Roskam in 2005. Besides diocesan links, they agreed that the program needed to work as a parish-to-parish exchange where they would be "praying for one another, supporting one another, visiting one another and knowing one another as brothers and sisters and growing together," Mhogolo says.

A spiritual journey
Until his Holy Land visit, he never considered the Palestinian reality in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Smock says. Now, he is godfather to Regina, 2½, the daughter of the Rev. Fuad Dagher, rector of St. Paul's Church in Shefa Amr in Galilee.

"We went with the Los Angeles delegation and visited our Muslim, Jewish and Druze brothers and sisters to show the close links and relationships in our land, because many in the world think this is a religious and not a political conflict," Dagher says of Smock's initial pilgrimage with others from Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel.

Now, the congregations are working to establish St. Paul's preschool for children of all faiths. They have organized two-way pilgrimages between the countries and are involving additional Los Angeles churches.

It mirrors Reznichek's experience. His Belize visit eight years ago "became a spiritual journey," he says. He returned to his parish, St. Cross by-the-Sea Church, and rector Paul Lawson asked for volunteers.

"About 60 people stood up," Reznicheck recalled. "It's the only time there was an actual altar call there, and it was extraordinary."

That was in 1999. St. Cross since has sent annual work crews that have collaborated with Belizean Anglicans to build a new church, Santa Cruz, along with 14 homes, and helped introduce water and electricity in the community. The ripple effect, he says, includes educational scholarships for three new priests and about a dozen high school students.

Most importantly, Reznichek says, "they've adopted us as part of their family; we are prayer partners.

"We form these teams, not to take a trip, but to make a spiritual journey," he says.

Last summer, youth groups from Los Angeles, El Salvador and Belize collaborated on work crews.

"It was really an awakening for me," says a participant from St. Matthew's Church in Pacific Palisades, Calif. "Hearing about places that seem so far away where people are suffering makes me aware, but to see it up close, and to realize people close to me are suffering, too, has changed me."

Further information about companion diocese relationships is available here.

Additional stories highlighting individual companion diocese relationships are available at the links below.

Argyll and The Isles-Delaware

Bor-Brasilia-Indianapolis

Brechin-Iowa-Swaziland

Haiti-Maine

Lui-Missouri

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