Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly, told the 110 or so presbytery and synod moderators attending the Moderators’ Conference Friday that the way she understands her favorite chapter in the Bible – Romans 8 – has understandably changed and deepened since she was a teenager in a new member class at her church in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Paul’s words to the church in Rome are familiar to most Christians: “If God is for us, who is against us?” “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Except that young Vilmarie saw those as personal promises. The co-moderator said she now gives the verses a literal read, with an emphasis on the plural pronouns that are on the page, not the singular ones that spoke directly to her.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to sit down and scrutinize the text,” she preached during a joyous opening worship service, held in the Presbyterian Center Chapel. Cintrón-Olivieri preached in Spanish; the Rev. Marissa Galvan-Valle of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation provided the English translation.
Worship was completely bilingual, with worship elements laid out in the order of worship side-by-side in both languages. Worshipers participated in both languages, often simultaneously.
“For years I had heard (Romans 8) speak to me, but that’s not what the text says,” Cintrón-Olivieri said. “I read ‘us,’ but I understood it as ‘me.’ Oh, did that plural escape me!”
Calling herself “an amateur theologian,” Cintrón-Olivieri said she’s found that salvation “has a collective dimension, and collective salvation starts here and now.” She urged those in attendance to “reclaim and practice this collective, plural, inclusive nature of God’s love and grace.”
That theological insight reminded her of an anonymous valentine she received a few years back: “Love,” the card said, “is an ‘I’ that looks for a ‘you’ to form an ‘us.’”
“It’s a simple formula for any kind of love,” she said. “Love is not lived individually but collectively. Let us live with certainty that when we do this, we are more than conquerors through the one who loves us. May God help us to do so.”
Her fellow co-moderator, the Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, also helped lead worship. During the closing hymn, the co-moderators worked the crowd in the chapel, flicking water on worshipers to help them remember their baptism.
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), delivered a taped greeting to conference-goers. “Congratulations on what you have accepted as a major task in the life of the denomination,” he said.
Whether they’re new to the role of mid council moderator or are coming back for more, there will be challenges ahead, Nelson said.
“People will be looking back instead of looking forward,” he said.
He urged the moderators to do the latter.
“Keep your hand on the gospel plow and don’t look back,” he said. “Do your work in the name of the God who woke you up this morning and sent you along your way.”
Following worship, participants learned about some of the tools of the moderator trade, including practices near and dear to Presbyterians: meeting management and parliamentary procedure. On Saturday, they’ll be in workshops and will worship once again, this time with Kohlmann preaching. They’ll conclude by viewing the film “The Genesis of Exodus” and discussing immigration issues.