Preaching at the opening worship service of the 2015 Polity Conference, the Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, told several hundred church leaders to ignore the loud voices of fear and judgment and to listen instead for the quiet voices of hope.
Parson used as one of his texts 1 King 19:9–13, in which the prophet Elijah flees for his life and hides in a cave, waiting for a word from the Lord. Elijah does not find God in the wind and the fire and the earthquake, but in a quieter presence that the Scripture calls “a sound of sheer silence.”
“There’s a very loud voice of judgment in our church saying that we have failed, that the PC(USA) has strayed from its beliefs,” Parsons said. “But there is a quieter voice that speaks the word of grace.”
He reminded listeners that the Book of Order says church councils and leaders sometimes make mistakes. “But we don’t err because we want bad stuff to happen,” Parsons said. “We err because we want good stuff to happen and we fall short.”
One of the noisy “wind and fire and earthquake voices” in the church is the word success, Parsons said. This voice says such things as “A bigger congregation is automatically a better congregation.”
“But there’s a quieter voice, and that voice is called faithfulness,” he said. There are “all those faithful Presbyterians who put money in the plate and come to church every Sunday.”
Another loud voice is fear, telling us the PC(USA)—or our congregation—is going to die. “The quieter voice is the voice of hope,” Parsons said. “It was hope in Jesus Christ that set this whole Reformed enterprise on its mission. You and I are the result of the hope of someone else.
“God has not given up on us,” he declared. “And we have not given up hope for what God can do through us in the Presbyterian church.”
Parsons pointed to the communion table, set with bread in plastic containers to resemble a church potluck supper. He said he has learned a lot while sitting around tables sharing meals with ordinary people in the church.
Inviting worshipers to come to the Lord’s Table, he said, “This is Maude’s table, this is Bob’s table, this is Tamika’s table.” The table symbolizes “the very nature of what it is that we are about.”
In an opening plenary session before worship, Heath Rada, Moderator of the 221st General Assembly (2014), spoke about ten things that he believes mark the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as “a reformed or resurrected church.”
Among the items on Rada’s list were these: increasing numbers of young adults being drawn to Presbyterian churches, the desire to move away from being cynical, commitment to being transparent, the recognition that change is inevitable, and the knowledge that “this is Christ’s church, not ours.”
Polity Conference participants attended a variety of workshops on Sunday afternoon.
In a workshop titled, “The Risk of Being the Church,” the Reverend J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., asked participants, “What does it mean to be where we are at this period of history in the church?”
A related question, he said, is whether or not the church has a role in modern politics. In response to this question, he pointed to Luke 4:18–19, in which Jesus launched his ministry by quoting from Isaiah 61. Jesus’ said God had called him to “bring good news to the poor” and “proclaim release to the captives.”
“This was the mission statement of Jesus Christ,” Nelson said. “If we follow Jesus Christ, that also has to be our mission statement.”
He lifted up challenges to the church related to immigration, new church development, and involvement of youth/young adults.
“We have to be willing in our churches to fail and start over,” he said. “And it’s not just about justice or about evangelism. It’s about how well we pull the two together to be the church of the 21st century.”
“Mid Councils in Immigration” was the topic of another workshop, led by Teresa Waggener and Laura Polk, who staff the Office of Immigration Issues in the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly.
Workshop participants shared experiences with immigrants in their communities, such as helping get visas for immigrant pastors and working with immigrant fellowships.
“The needs of the world are many, and we are few,” Waggener said. “But the great thing about being Presbyterian is that we’re connected. When we’re connected, one with another, there are so many great things we can do.”
As an example, she and Polk described how churches and other groups have organized a response to the issue of family detention.
In the summer of 2014, some 120,000 unaccompanied children and other immigrants arrived at the southern U.S. border, Waggener explained. “Our country decided that instead of welcoming them, we would lock them up in family detention centers.”
There are three family detention centers, two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. Polk described how congregations and various faith groups, nonprofit lawyers, and other volunteers organized efforts in the San Antonio area to help people in detention centers.
Churches held events to educate the community. Presbyterians participated in a march to raise awareness. Local media coverage encouraged imprisoned mothers to join a hunger strike protesting their detention. Mission Presbytery helped connect people and resources. A letter with 1,000-plus signatures of faith group leaders was sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Polk and Waggener listed a number of assets available for immigration advocacy. Congregations and mid councils, for example, can develop contacts with local pro-bono immigration lawyers and refugee resettlement agencies.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance connects churches with agencies doing refugee resettlement, such as Church World Service. These agencies offer alternatives to detention, housing, and support for asylum-seekers, and other support. Mid councils can request grants from PDA for refugee ministries.
Individuals can get involved in the Presbyterians for Just Immigration network. The Office of Immigration Issues, which has staff with knowledge of the Bible and the law, offers training for Presbyterians who want to be involved in immigration advocacy.
Churches and individuals can draw on the PC(USA)’s strong policy statements on immigration issues, Waggener said. “We have a history of policy supporting migrants.”