Touring and serving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Moderator’s wife to spend term visiting ministries, seeing church in action
August 4, 2014
On Monday, it was an afternoon at the White House, witnessing President Obama sign an executive order protecting federal employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. On Tuesday, it was the overnight shift in a church-based shelter in New York City, serving coffee and sharing fellowship with 12 homeless men.
Heath and Peggy Rada were just beginning a tour of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that will take them across the United States and into Latin America by year’s end. Those first two days made clear what very different paths they would be traveling.
As moderator of the 221st General Assembly, Heath Rada will be a public figure for the next two years, meeting with pastors and congregations to sort through the issues that created headlines and renewed long-simmering controversies soon after his election in Detroit this summer.
For her part, Peggy Rada is approaching this period as an opportunity to take a quieter approach to service. While Heath is presiding at clergy meetings, addressing town halls and fielding questions from the press, Peggy intends to be “reading to children, rocking babies, serving in soup kitchens or clothes closets, any place where I can see the Church in action.”
“Much of my life has been at the center of things,” Heath said in an email. “Peggy does not solicit attention. The idea of doing service while we are itinerating as moderator and wife was hers.”
Her first stop: the David B. Skinner Shelter at New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. While her husband discussed divestment with a group of rabbis and pastors, Peggy toured the 12-bed men’s shelter with Amanda Ashcraft, the church’s director of outreach ministries, and got some quick training in serving as an overnight host. The Radas shared the hosting duties that night, from 8:30 until 6 the next morning.
Ashcraft also provided a crash course in Fifth Avenue’s 26-year history of befriending, sheltering and advocating for the city’s homeless.
“In the early ‘80s, Mayor Koch implored communities of faith to open up their facilities to help with a sudden increase in the homeless population,” she said. “A group of elders here brought a proposal to the session, which agreed to pilot a temporary shelter in the church house. Everyone thought this was a temporary problem at the time. Now the number of homeless in the city is the worst it’s ever been.”
That number is 57,000, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. An estimated 23,000 are children. Even if the Radas were stunned by the scale of homelessness in New York City, they are no strangers to the crisis. In their hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, they volunteer with Room in the Inn, a community-based women’s shelter. The Radas’ home church, Grace Covenant Presbyterian, is among the 40 faith communities that contribute volunteers, meals and sleeping quarters on a rotating basis.
The Radas also are involved with Grace Covenant in a coordinated outreach to the city’s homeless veterans, providing meals, temporary lodging, cooking classes and skills training.
“Asheville is a magnet for the homeless population,” Peggy said. “You wouldn’t expect that because it’s not a major East Coast hub. But because of the quality of city services, it has become a mecca.”
Service was at the heart of what Peggy refers to as “my dream of retirement” when she retired in 2004 from the Collegiate School, an independent high school in Richmond, Virginia, where she taught for 24 years. Next came Head Start classes, Meals on Wheels deliveries and the church’s homeless outreach.
When Heath began to consider standing for moderator of the 221st General Assembly, the Radas knew they faced a two-year disruption of their best-laid plans. As they prayed over the question of whether to stand, their pastor, the Rev. Mark Ramsey, suggested they move forward only if they both saw a green light ahead.
Peggy recalled a sleepless night when she realized that, should her husband be elected moderator, she could take her dream of retirement on the road.
“I wanted to be a partner in this,” she said. “I told Heath about it the next morning. Privately he had felt called to stand, but he wanted me to be sure as well. So when I told him what I had spent the night thinking about, he looked at me and said, ‘That’s the green light I’ve been looking for.’”
Their maiden experience with Fifth Avenue’s shelter left them tired but exhilarated.
“It was a wonderful night,” Peggy said the next morning. “They are the nicest men, and we enjoyed a good conversation with probably five or six of them. I don’t think it could have been any better.”
With that, the Radas were off for a visit to Ellis Island, an afternoon nap and a flight to Fort Worth, Texas. Their journey is underway.
Timothy Palmer Curl is director of communications at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.