How a “concrete block” holds the heart of Christian unity

WCC- As the Ecumenical Centre moves into the Green Village, the change means a more environmentally sustainable workplace for the World Council of Churches (WCC), as well as an opportunity to keep some of the most treasured aspects of the Ecumenical Centre—especially its spirit of unity, inclusivity, and mystique!

To mark this milestone in WCC’s history, WCC communications is presenting a series of features that captures the history and memories of current and former staff who fondly recall walking into the Ecumenical Centre for the first time. 

Additional features will offer a more comprehensive history of the Ecumenical Centre, a tour of its treasured objects and artwork, and highlights of notable visitors, among other topics. 

A welcoming entrance hall

Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, who served as WCC general secretary from 1993 to 2003, entered the Ecumenical Centre for the first time in 1968—soon after the WCC 4th Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden.

“I had come to negotiate with the colleague in the Lutheran World Federation responsible for Latin America the modalities for a potential contract to go to Quito in Ecuador as pastor for an international Lutheran congregation,” recalled Raiser. “At that time I did not know that, a year later, I would enter the Ecumenical Centre again now as a young staff member of the WCC in the secretariat on Faith and Order.”

He remembers being impressed by the light and welcoming architecture of the entrance hall. “I immediately felt at ease and at home,” he said. “Of course, I did not anticipate that the Ecumenical Centre would be my main place of work and community life for more than 25 years.”

Home sweet home

A sense of “feeling at home” came over many former and current staff as they talked about the Ecumenical Centre.

David Gill served at the WCC from 1968-79, first with the Department on Church and Society, then as executive secretary for WCC 5th Assembly in Nairobi, then with the Sub-unit on Renewal and Congregational Life.

As a student of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, he discovered the Ecumenical Centre in late 1967. “Everything was sparkling new,” he said. “The move from ad hoc offices on the other side of Geneva had happened only three years earlier.”

He recalls staff being pleased with their new home. “There was plenty of space—even for cars!” he said. “The building announced that ecumenism had arrived in today’s world.”

But the concrete and glass were only part of it, Gill added. “More important, I began to realise, were the people within,” he said. “ ‘This place is like a university without students,’ someone said. They came from so many lands, so many churches. They had expertise in so many fields. And they were motivated by a vision more compelling than all their differences.”

Wes Granberg-Michaelson remembers a February day blanketed with Geneva’s wet snow and dismal gray sky when he first entered the Ecumenical Centre in 1987. “But the building spoke of the World Council of Churches’ mystique.  The high, spacious entry hall surrounded by balconies on three side, the iconic mosaic in the Assembly Hall, and vivid, varied artwork from the world church enraptured me.”

He never imagined, two years later, he’d walk through that same entry hall as the new director of Church and Society for the WCC. “Then the second-floor cafeteria became the center of the Centre.  Insert a Swiss France into the splendid coffee machine and listen to coffee beans ground at that moment to make the best fresh brewed cup long before Starbucks become globalized,” he said. “Those tables, outside in warmer weather, often spoke of the Table as formative conversations felt nearly sacramental.”

Granberg-Michaelson, who also served on the WCC central committee member from 1994-2006, also remembers colleagues calling the Ecumenical Centre “the house.” 

“The challenge, with its marvelously diverse staff, was whether it could feel like a home, for all,” he said. “It’s that same challenge which faces the global ecumenical community today. A picture of colleagues in the carpool which shuttled us from La Gradelle to the Ecumenical Centre still hangs in my study.  It reminds me that for so many, when we finished our work as WCC staff, we didn’t just return home.  We also left home.”

Simon Oxley, who worked at the WCC from 1996-2008 as the WCC executive secretary for Education, will always remember his immediate feeling when he first walked through the doors of the Ecumenical Centre: “That this was a place I felt I belonged,” he said. “That was even before I’d seen the chapel, meeting hall, cafeteria, and library.”

In the late 1980s, Oxley was visiting Geneva for other professional purposes and his hosts arranged a visit to the Ecumenical Centre. “A specific memory of that visit is of sitting in the office of the executive secretary for Education – the office previously occupied by Paulo Freire,” he recalled. “And there was the coffee table used by him.

“Little did I think that, in 1996, I would be occupying that position and that the coffee table would accompany me on the many subsequent changes of office location in the Jura and Lac wings,” he said.

As the memories pour forth, one comes to realize that it’s not only the building that was welcoming—it was the hearts of the people within. 

Evelyn V. Appiah worked in the Sub-unit on Renewal and Congregation Life, Lay Participation Towards Inclusive Community, and Lay Centres, Academies, and Movements for Social Concern.

“As I walked through the entrance door of the Ecumenical Centre, I was greeted and welcomed by the smiles of staff at the reception,” she said. “The open space at the reception area and the foyer had a positive impact on me.”

She remembers a feeling of belonging and excitement as she went to meet her colleagues in the Jura and Lac wings where she had her office. “Working together with people from different countries, church traditions, age groups, and educational backgrounds helped me to grow intellectually and spiritually,” she said. “The cafeteria was the meeting point for lunch but what I appreciated most was tea-time at 15:30.”

Pour an ecu-cup and sit down

Ecumenical tea, remembered by many, was a time to pause, get away from your desk, take a walk, and meet informally with colleagues. “It was a wonderful moment to build relationships,” remembered Appiah. 

Hubert Van Beek’s arrival predated the cafeteria coffee machine—but he was right on time for ecumenical tea. “One of my early memories of the Ecumenical Centre is that, in 1978, the year I arrived, the morning coffee was still served in the corridors,” he described. “At around half past ten I could hear the trolley being pushed out of the elevator.”

Staff members were supposed to wait until the trolley reached the door of their offices before coming out to get their cups. “My office was on the fourth floor of Lac, at the end of the corridor, so I was about the last to get served,” he said. “My hunch is that this coffee service was a relic of the famous ‘Dutch mafia’ from the time of Dr Visser ‘t Hooft, because it was something very common in the Netherlands.”

Like many others, he fondly recalls the ecumenical tea, at that time held at half past three in the afternoon the cafeteria. “The tea was usually not to write home about, but it was a good moment to meet colleagues,” he said.

Dr Visser ‘t Hooft, who was retired by then, had an office in the building, and during tea he would sit in the cafeteria every afternoon, always at the same table. “We, the Dutch colleagues, would address him affectionately as ‘dominee,’ the word we use to call our pastor,” said Van Beek. “I came to work with the WCC (at the Africa Desk) from Madagascar where I had served in the church for 13 years, often in the bush visiting local churches and development projects, on the ground, in direct touch with the life of the people and the church.”

For the first six months in the Ecumenical Centre, he could not imagine how he could serve the same cause, sitting at a desk on the fourth floor, watching the Jura Mountains. “All I wanted was to go back to the field,” he said. “Well, at least, there was no lack of that.”

He ended up traveling so much for the Africa Desk that after a year, going down to tea in the cafeteria, someone asked him if he was a visitor.

“The heart of the world church was beating in the corridors of the Ecumenical Centre,” he said. “Every day you would hear news, come across visitors from anywhere in the world. The Ecumenical Centre was the world church in a nutshell.”

Concretely captivating

Ruth Ann Gill recalled walking up to the Ecumenical Centre with her husband, Theodore, whose father had worked in the Ecumenical Centre as his son later would. Ruth Ann Gill most recently served with the media team at the WCC 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe.

“I stopped and I thought, ‘Oh my word, a wonderful mosaic of Christianity—working in a concrete block!” she said. “I was so excited to step through those doors.”

Now retired with her husband living in Connecticut (USA), Gill is still moved by the memories of the Ecumenical Centre. “All those churches, all those religions—especially as I sit here now in Connecticut—how people came together,” she said. “I remember standing in my hallway and hearing all the languages spoken— a cacophony of wonderfulness.”

Beth Ferris, now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, recalled arriving at the Ecumenical Centre in 1985, ready to take up her new position as study and interpretation secretary for work related to the Refugee Service.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “Although I’d briefly stopped by the Ecumenical Centre a few months earlier to meet a staff member working with refugees, I didn’t know much about the World Council of Churches and had no idea about how I might fit into this international ecumenical environment.”

She ended up loving every minute she worked in the Ecumenical Centre. “The years I spent in the Ecumenical Centre profoundly shaped my life – intellectually, spiritually, and personally,” she said. “I carry those memories in my heart.”

Rev. Margarithe Veen, from the Netherlands, recalled visiting the Ecumenical Centre as a Bossey student in 1998. “It was heartwarming that all the members of the WCC were so kind and so open,” she said. “It was one community.”

As she returns to the Ecumenical Centre from time to time, she still feels the same sense of inclusion. “For me, it’s the ecumenical family,” she said. “In 1998, we had no smartphones, and 1998 was 50 years of the WCC—and Desmond Tutu was there in the old library!”

The Ecumenical Centre still carries the same sense of wonder for her. “I think, still, it is wonderful to meet the ecumenical family, the future of our church—all the openness and kindness,” she said.

Gloria Charles, who works with the WCC Visitors Programme and with the communications team, first arrived at the Ecumenical Centre for a job interview in 2019. “I kept on praying and hoping that I would get the position,” she said—and of course she did. 

When her work expanded to include the Visitors Programme, she appreciated how the Ecumenical Centre is for everyone. “Every day, there is a new group coming, with new thoughts, and new ideas,” she said. “Their mindsets have changed.”

John Christensen, project officer for the Ecumenical Disabilities Advocates Network and Health and Healing, set foot in the Ecumenical Centre comparatively recently: three months ago. “I had never been to Geneva,” said Christensen, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska (USA). “You walk in—and it’s a buzz of life.”

It seemed many people were eager to greet him. “It went from being this strange place I had heard of to a place I felt comfortable very quickly,” he said. “I felt comfortable and connected almost immediately. For being a concrete box, it had a lot of life.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *