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Early memories of the Ecumenical Centre: 1978

You would wait until it reached the door of your office before going out to get your cup. My office was on the fourth floor of Lac, at the end of the corridor, so I was about the last to be served. My hunch is that this coffee service was a holdover from the famous “Dutch Mafia” of Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft’s time, as it was something very common in the Netherlands.

Not just the coffee, by the way. Also the “ecumenical tea” in the afternoon, at half past four. But it was served in the cafeteria. The tea was usually nothing to write home about, but it was a good time to meet colleagues. And speaking of Doctor Visser ‘t Hooft, who was then retired, he had an office in the building, and during tea he sat there every afternoon, always at the same table. We, the Dutch colleagues, would affectionately address him as dominoes,” the word we use to call our pastor.

I came to work with the WCC (at the Africa Desk of CICARWS) 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 contact with folk life and the church. For the first six months or so, I couldn’t imagine how you could earn the same, sitting at a desk on the fourth floor of the Ecumenical Center and looking at the Jura Mountains. All I wanted was to go back to the field. Well, there was no shortage of that anyway. I traveled so much for the Africa Desk that after a year, when I went down to tea in the cafeteria, someone asked me if I was a visitor.

One of the good things about the “old days” was the Ecumenical Center staff association. In the summer, the association organized barbecues on the terrace of the cafeteria and at least once a year a cabaret in the conference hall. I remember Philip Potter as a bank manager in a skit about the boycott of the Swiss banks investing in apartheid South Africa. The bank manager had no idea what WCC was all about. When he learned that it was an organization of the churches, he left the script for what it was, saying: Oh, I see, you know, we at the bank do savings too…”

When I arrived, the WCC had a staff of about 360. Besides the Lutheran World Federation with about 100, there were several smaller ecumenical organizations such as the Conference of European Churches, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, World Student Christian Federation, Internship in Mission. There were hardly any other tenants. The heart of the world church beat in the corridors of the Ecumenical Center. Every day you would hear news, come across visitors from anywhere in the world. The ecumenical center was the world church in a nutshell.

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