After about two years without a director, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s Washington Office is bringing the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson on board. He starts as director of public witness May 3.
Nelson, pastor of Liberation Community Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn., was introduced to a group of Presbyterians during Ecumenical Advocacy Days here March 19-22.
Calling the opportunity to serve in the Washington Office “humbling and heartening,” Nelson spoke about the office’s role in the church’s goal of transformation.
Created in 1946, the Washington Office works to advocate for public policy that reflects the social witness perspectives and policies of the General Assembly. Following the 2007 resignation of its longtime director, the Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory, the office underwent a mission study, in which its future priorities and direction were examined. The Washington Office Study Group report was presented to the General Assembly Mission Council last September.
The Washington Office works “to not only push within the confines of society, but to push within the confines of the Christian church, particularly our own denomination,” Nelson said.
He spoke of theological and historical reasons for the church’s work in public policy. When Reformed thinker John Calvin died, he willed his journals to political leaders — he saw faith as having transformative abilities for those in power and strongly advocated the engagement of the church in civil society.
“Calvin understood that connection — that the church was to be the conscience of society,” Nelson said. “We will do as much as much as we can in Washington to continue the tradition of the office … but even before then, to continue the tradition of Reformed faith.”
Whether or not the church has a role in politics is a “façade of a debate,” he said, using health care reform as an example. The church works with sick people, and so if it remains silent on health care policies, it remains silent on the healing ministry of Jesus.
“There is an inseparable connection between the church as a place of righteousness and justice … and what takes place in the halls of Congress,” Nelson said.
Speaking about the future of the office’s work, Nelson said it’s important to reconnect the office with Presbyterians across the country. By building and mobilizing a viable base, he insisted, the PC(USA) can assure that when it speaks, Congress will listen.
Involving young people is imperative, Nelson said. Young people care about the world and want to make a transformative change.
“This is an opportunity that this office can take to make connections and also bring young people into a place where they can use what they’ve already gained in knowledge and interest,” he told the Presbyterian News Service in a later interview.
The office must look in venues where young people already gather — social network sites, seminaries, mission trips and internships, for example — and make connections between those programs and national and international political dynamics, he said. Involving newer generations is a challenge for the entire church, and it’s vital to do ministry with youth, not just for youth.
The Washington Office must also build stronger relationships with the General Assembly Mission Council’s national office in Louisville, he added. Each office needs to know what the other is doing in order to speak with a stronger voice.
Nelson spoke about the many offices in the ministry area of Compassion, Peace and Justice, which also houses the Washington Office. The ministries of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Self-Development of People, Mission Responsibility Through Investment and others can and must work together, he said.
“All of us around that table, we are doing work that is interconnected,” Nelson said, using the church’s response to Hurricane Katrina as an example. PDA has been working on recovery from the hurricane, but the Washington Office could also play a role by learning what legislation could be passed to advance the rebuilding and what is being done for those displaced by the disaster.
“How do we begin to look at, recognize these functions?” he asked, adding that building a broader network is key. There are “ways of working legislation that actually coordinate our efforts.”
Nelson hopes to connect Presbyterians who are doing good work in their communities and congregations with the national offices that can help connect them with others in their fields.
He also hopes that the Washington Office can better communicate its work with the rest of the church.
Prophetic and priestly
Working for transformation is never easy, Nelson said, adding that there are plenty of challenges ahead.
“We are in a time in which there is intense fear,” he said. “There is fear of the future and fear of letting go of the past.”
When such fears show themselves, it’s easy to blame some one — or some office, Nelson said. But it’s important to look at the prophetic and priestly images in scripture. These images show an inextricable link between righteousness and justice.
In fact, Nelson said, righteousness and justice come from the same Hebrew word, but are sometimes separated in life: we are righteous on Sundays and see justice as merely an option, he said.
Sometimes being prophetic and priestly can seem contradictory, he said, adding that Christians are called to be indignant while exhibiting excellent character.
“How can we be indignant and still be righteous?” he said.
By helping to create a new reality, one that addresses such issues as health care, the environment, immigration and fiscal responsibility, he said.
“We’re called by God to address these realities,” Nelson said. “(We’re called to be) priestly in love and prophetic in speaking truth to power.
“These are not contradictions in terms,” he said, “but expectations for God’s people.”
By building opportunities for those who have been locked out by society’s flaws, pressing local and global partnerships and empowering people, there won’t be time to complain about things like decreasing church membership, Nelson said.
Instead, he insisted, the church will rejoice in God’s work.
Nelson’s last Sunday at Liberation Community Presbyterian Church is Easter, and he wants to remind the congregation, and all Presbyterians, of the good news of that day.
“The power of the gospel is a reminder that behind every Good Friday is an Easter Sunday,” he said. “Better days are here for this denomination and better days are here for us who choose to be righteous and just.”
Although the work will not be easy, it’s done by faith, Nelson said. God stands with us in good times and bad, and although we might not see the answers we want right away, God won’t fail, he added.
“You’re going to be hearing from us,” he said. “Be ready to be faithful, walk together, and let us not be weary.”