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Journeys Spiritual and Global

By August 1, 2011 No Comments

As Wesley Granberg-Michaelson concludes his seventeen-year tenure as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, he has given to his friends around the world the gift of an autobiography, a story that carries him from the evangelical fold of the Midwest to the richly diverse halls of the global ecumenical movement. After reading the book, I emailed Wes–who has become a friend and colleague since his arrival as general secretary of the RCA in 1994–and reminded him that the fate of an introvert is to reveal himself finally through his pen rather than his conversations. Click to purchase With the aid of his journals that span more than forty years, Wes intimately shares in this book his personal and vocational journeys with a self-awareness that does not slip into self-absorption.

In a sense, Unexpected Destinations is not one book, but three: the first is the amazing personal journey that brought Wes from the inner circle of the National Evangelical Association, where his grandfather–with the moniker Big Daddy–served for decades as treasurer and confidant to the early leaders of the movement. The second is Wes’s service as general secretary of the RCA, which consumes the central part of the volume. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we read about Wes’s deep and life-long passion to welcome to the ecumenical table those at the margins, especially two traditions that have all too often sat by themselves: the Roman Catholic Church and the Pentecostal churches, the two largest streams of Christianity in the latter half of the twentieth century. I am convinced that this significant commitment on Wes’s part has helped prepare the global church to speak and act in concert as it wrestles with interfaith and interreligious dialogue–which has become a life-and-death issue for this new century.

Wes prefers to call his book a memoir rather than an autobiography, perhaps a distinction without a difference. But he is very cautious about the task of telling his own story, wanting it in the end to be a description of “that mysterious, grace-filled process in my inward and outward journey.” The notion of two journeys, a perspective given to him by his long-time relationship with his mentor Gordon Cosby and the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., provides the tools necessary to weave together his faith journey and his remarkable career as one of the most respected ecumenical church leaders of the past three decades.

Reflecting on his evangelical roots, Wes pulls no punches when he observes: “The evangelical subculture in which I was raised was infiltrated by pernicious racism, captured by right-wing nationalism, absorbed with rampant materialism and defended by haughty selfrighteousness. But it taught me to ask the right question: What about Jesus?” This question, first raised by a deeply loving yet controlling mother, never left the soul or vision of the boy who was raised at the Park Ridge Gospel Church in a suburb of Chicago.

Wes’s decision to go to Hope College, a college of the Reformed Church in America, rather than Wheaton, where a number of his extended family attended, was one of the crossroads that undoubtedly changed the trajectory of his life. He left Hope in 1967 to serve with Senator Mark Hatfield during the fractious Vietnam and Watergate years. The piety Wes had learned at Park Ridge was dramatically enlarged for him amid global struggles for peace and justice. Meanwhile, the inward spiritual journey prompted by this dramatic enlargement of vision did not come easily to one so consumed by the political and social agendas swirling around him. From Hatfield’s office, Wes joined Jim Wallis and the Sojourners community and magazine. His skills as a speech writer served him in good stead as the editor of the magazine, yet he slowly came to the realization that his service in the shadow of Hatfield and Wallis did not provide him with enough freedom to explore and develop his own gifts and vision.

Perhaps one of the keys to Wes’s journey is found in his “quiet” years in Missoula, Montana, where he learned to fly fish, where he wrote significant books about the ecological crisis (long before it was on the agenda of most churches and politicians), and where he and Karin had their two children. His passion for peace and justice remained as strong as ever, but his pace slowed, nurturing within him a wise self-awareness that would carry him through his often frenetic years with the World Council of Churches and as general secretary of the RCA.

Through it all, Wes kept writing his spiritual journals, took intentional time for retreat, and sought to balance his inward journey with his outward journey. What about Jesus? Wes’s mother, I suspect, would be proud of the fact that he never forgot that question, and that it has been at the heart of his journeys. As the world of interfaith relationships has become a necessary focus in a very dangerous world, I also suspect that the question “What about Jesus?” will need to draw Christians toward new ways of dialogue and cooperation if we are to be peacemakers for this new era. Unexpected Destinations is a useful case study in seeking out those new ways.

Gregg Mast is president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey.