“Won’t you be my neighbor?”
When most adults hear or see that question, their minds immediately rush to the popular children’s program "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," featuring the compassionate and caring Fred Rogers. The Presbyterian minister garnered a huge following in his decades as a children’s broadcaster.
Those who grew up watching Rogers learned a lot about inclusion, which became an underlying theme recently in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole, the Wyoming and Yellowstone presbyteries, and the Synod of the Rocky Mountains teamed up to offer a two-day gathering to discover how they might be better neighbors in their communities.
Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was the special guest.
“Jackson was a different environment to me and I was in awe. With the Rocky Mountains in the distance, it was out of this world and there’s a Presbyterian church in the middle of that beauty,” she said. “This thriving and healthy church is only 20 to 25 years old and serves as a hub for events in the community. They are in this area, yet the Presbyterians feel very far away from what is happening in the denomination, so I was very happy to be there.”
Organizers built an equipping and get-to-know-the-Co-Moderator event. Until recently, the synod sponsored a yearly equipping event (Western National Leadership Training), but it had been discontinued because of financial concerns and declining attendance. The recent event included several breakout sessions, including one led by the Reverend Jeff Eddings, coaching associate for 1001 New Worshiping Communities, and a question and answer session with the Co-Moderator.
Tammy Mitchell, associate pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole, believed Cintrón-Olivieri was the right person to be a part of their efforts to better equip, encourage, and engage the presbytery in leadership and missional outreach.
“Being from Puerto Rico, Vilmarie brings a unique perspective of what it means to be a global witness in our hurting world,” Mitchell said. “Because of her small church experience and her love for the PC(USA), she knows what it means to be ‘at home in the world.’”
Mitchell says the two-day session gave pastors and lay leaders a foundation for “real leadership development” through plenaries and breakout seminars.
“Theologically speaking, as a church, we are a ‘sent people.’ We have been filled up by God’s Holy Spirit only to be poured out to a world who desperately needs to know the life and love of Jesus Christ,” she said. “We hoped this event would create and renew a passion to serve the least. We wanted to know we are placed in this world for a purpose and do not want to ignore or dismiss the difficult challenges we are faced with every day through injustice, immigration, racism, sexual and domestic abuse, bigotry, and more.”
Cintrón-Olivieri shared how Presbyterians across the country are being powerful neighbors and challenged attendees to see how they might creatively respond to God’s call where they are.
“This event was possible because one of our pastors came up with an idea, a local congregation hosted, and several mid councils supported and participated to bring people together from several states,” she said. “This was an equipping event where all of us found a safe space for conversations, for asking and answering practical faith questions, for much-needed respite with time built in for camaraderie and sightseeing as well.”
Cintrón-Olivieri says the Presbyterian presence in the area is not as big as in other regions of the country and many of their congregations are smaller in size. She added that it was important for her to be there.
“I believe the participants came away with a sense of being connected to the denomination at large. They received more tools to continue to reach out to their community and they’re already doing it,” said Cintrón-Olivieri. “I felt a sense of hope of what can be done in the area they serve.”
The Reverend Dr. George Goodrich is co-general presbyter of the Presbytery of Yellowstone along with his wife, the Reverend Kathy Goodrich. The couple has served 23 churches in their 15 years on the job. He says he was glad the Co-Moderator was able to participate.
“We serve mostly small and isolated congregations across 600 miles. We are doing home mission work in a region of eastern Montana where the rural population is in decline. Towns are fading, and congregations are shrinking and struggling,” he said. “We are training lay people whom God seems to be raising up to lead their congregations because they likely will not be able to afford a pastor again.”
Goodrich says he believes the only way the church today can “hang together” is to keep Christ as the focus.
Cintron-Olivieri says she’s hopeful the impact of the event will be long-lasting.
“I hope all of the attendees returned home refreshed, with renewed vision and strength to continue being neighbors in each of their, and our contexts, with a sense of what is happening across the PC(USA) and with an affirmation of togetherness in Christ: we are siblings, we are connected, and we are responding to God’s call where God has placed us.”
The Synod Executive Forum will meet in November to review the event and determine “what the Spirit is inviting them to do” and how to move forward.