The days when divided and conflicted Presbyterians could gloss over or ignore their differences are over, General Assembly Vice-moderator Larissa Kwong Abazia said today (Nov. 7).

“This day,” she told more than 120 presbytery and synod leaders gathered here for the annual Moderators Conference, “we are called to move through the pain and suffering, to have the tough conversations, to face one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and take the hard together.”

Preaching from John 20:19-29 (Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples), Kwong Abazia said the church faces the same temptation as those disciples: “to hunker down and hit preservation mode. If we can’t save what’s inside, then we surely can’t save anyone outside. It’s time to focus on us.”

But even with their doubts and fears, their seeming loss of identity and community, the disciples experienced “that [Jesus] was still there and among them…” she continued.

“There are real, deep scars out there in our churches, mourning and vulnerabilities torn open from our denomination’s decisions,” Kwong Abazia said. “But you don’t need me to tell you that do you?”

The church’s procedures ― with up and down votes, winners and losers ― “have failed us,” she said. We’ve pitted our communities against one another. We’ve allowed the debates of our presbyteries through the General Assembly to define who we are and what we stand for, forgetting that, embodied, we are the Church.”

On the General Assembly’s recent vote to permit same-sex marriages in the church, there are those who are celebrating and those who are mourning, Kwong Abazia acknowledged. More than 220 churches have left the PC(USA). “And those who stay are faced with the ongoing pressure that they have conformed, giving up their long held beliefs to together as a denomination,” she said.

Conversations around the Belhar Confession ― the South African anti-apartheid inspired creed currently being debated and voted on by the presbyteries ― are prompting “individuals and communities of color … to wonder if the denomination is capable of wrestling with the call to racial reconciliation,” Kwong Abazia said, noting that “we are a 90 percent white denomination in a country that is becoming increasingly more diverse.”

The good news in the sermon text from John 20, Kwong Abazia said, is that “the disciples know it was Jesus because they saw his hands and his sides. The scars and wounds didn’t disappear from his resurrected body, they were still right there as an acknowledgement of everything he had endured …”

She challenged her fellow Presbyterian leaders “to be like Thomas. Go out in the midst of the crowds, and, even without answers, meet people where they are. Go to touch and experience the broken body of the Church, and then believe for yourself that resurrection is possible.”

Over the course of their weekend together, the moderators  will hear from the six national agencies of the PC(USA) ― the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Office of the General Assembly, the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program ―and will engage in workshops on such topics and skills as meeting management, parliamentary procedure, worship leadership, the responsibilities of presbyteries and synods in relationship to the General Assembly, and policies and procedures for dismissing congregations to other denominations.

The conference concludes Sunday morning with worship and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, presided over by General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada.