Presbyterians in town for the 221st General Assembly (2014) left their downtown hotels Sunday to spread across the region, attending worship in nearly 40 Detroit-area congregations, where they were welcomed with hugs and lunches –- and in places, bread and wine.
The practice of worshipping in local congregations was resumed two years ago when the Assembly met in Pittsburgh so commissioners could experience the community in which they were meeting, and so that the community could experience the face of the denomination.
One of churches welcoming Assembly attendees was First Presbyterian Church of Farmington, in Farmington Hills, a suburban city northwest of Detroit where Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons was guest preacher. The visitors helped mark the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the 460-member congregation.
And the story of the founding of the Farmington church is unusual. In her children’s sermon, First Church’s pastor Sue Ellis Melrose explained that the church was chartered on the floor of the 1954 General Assembly, which met in Detroit. Melrose presented a corsage to Mary Larson, the only current member who was present at the 1954 chartering service.
In his sermon, titled “Signs,” Parsons said the chartering of the Farmington congregation 60 years ago was a sign that the General Assembly believed in the future of the denomination.
To illustrate one of his texts, the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), Parsons shared a memory from his years growing up in a small town in East Tennessee. “Mister John,” a man who had fallen on hard times, would come to the farmers market every Saturday and sell No. 2 pencils.
Because the town’s biggest industry was a factory that manufactured No. 2 pencils, Parsons added, “The town was awash in No. 2 pencils. Nobody needed to buy No. 2 pencils.”
And yet a steady stream of people would drop a dollar in Mister John’s hat and take one of his pencils. “People would buy his pencils,” Parsons said, “because it was their understanding of community, of what caring for one another was about.”
In contrast, Parsons said, the rich man in Luke 16 did not acknowledge Lazarus as a person in need of his help. “The rich man realized way too late that Lazarus was meant to be a sign to him,” a sign of the need to show mercy and compassion.
Parsons encouraged his listeners not to look through people – for example, the fast-food workers who take our orders – but to see them as real people who may bring a message from God. “We are signs to each other,” he said. “People in the world can be signs to us. We have to look for those signs.”
Meanwhile another group of Assembly-goers walked a few blocks from the Cobo Center to worship at Fort Street Presbyterian Church. Pastor Sharon Mook told a full house, which included newly elected General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada, that the experience of Pentecost was “a miracle of the ear, not of the tongue.”
Mook insisted Pentecost was “about listening, not talking ― about the ability to hear someone else, to understand one so different from yourself, even if you don’t agree.”
The challenge of Pentecost, Mook said, “is to listen our way to understanding and connection ― to be fully human and to understand God better. We need to really listen because each message from a brother or sister is a message from God, seeking to make us a healthier family and whole. I pray it happens this week at the General Assembly.”
Demonstrating such openness, Mook shared the Fort Street pulpit with Rabbi Alissa Wise and Iman Abdullah El-Amin.
“I have learned so much from Presbyterians about interfaith work,” Wise said. “In the Jewish faith we talk about ‘disagreement for the sake of Heaven,’ the kind of disagreement that strengthens relationship and challenges all of us not to see people as groups but as committed individuals and communities. The testimony of our work together will be ‘an interfaith Torah’ to repair a broken world.”
Imam El-Amin praised Fort Street Church as “being well-known for its work with poor and disadvantaged.” He recited the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic, saying, “God, the one, has many names, but in the heart is one Spirit and one Ruler. The interfaith task is to know one another that we may grow in God’s wisdom.”
Up the road in St. Clair Shores, Lakeshore Presbyterian Church Shores took advantage of the presence of the Assembly nearby to invite as guest preacher the Rev. Shannon Kiser, a missional catalyst for the Presbyterian Mission Agency's 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative.
Kiser, a parish associate at Riverside Church in Sterling, Virginia, based her sermon on Matthew 9:35–38, especially Jesus' comment in 37–38: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
She reminded listeners that many people outside the church's walls are hurting and in need. She said the United States has become the largest mission field in the world, drawing mission workers to its shores.
At Calvary church, members didn't want commissioners to come to Detroit and have parts of the city hidden from their eyes. The predominantly African-American congregation is not far from Eight Mile Road – a scar of segregation running through the city.
Worship began with a peace walk through Calvary's neighborhood and concluded with a visit to the 1941 segregation wall, now reclaimed by the community with graffiti art declaring "I am a man."
Kevin Johnson, the only African-American working full-time as a Presbyterian pastor in Detroit, declared from the pulpit, "God is trying to raise up a prophetic voice in the church, a voice that speaks truth to power."
He spoke of a city that has more registered firearms than registered voters, saying, "If we are not prayerful, we might come to this city for business as usual and miss an opportunity … to walk alongside grieving mothers who have wept long over the murdered bodies of their sons and daughters."
Invoking the image of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, Johnson said, "If you PC(USA), even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace." And peace was exactly what Assembly commissioners and visitors found at Calvary—a place of hearty handshakes, deep hugs, testimonials, altar calls, and a resounding Father's Day chorus singing for absent fathers and a never-absent heavenly Father.
Jerry L. Van Marter, Rachel Shussett, John A. Bolt and Patrick Heery contributed to this article.