Over the next two years, Presbyterians will be seeing and hearing a lot about the Sankofa bird standing in a stream of water. The image could be seen brightly behind the Reverend Gregory Bentley last Saturday night as he and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart became the Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly (2020) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The two selected the image of the bird standing in the Mississippi River as a representation of both African American and Native American cultures.
“We wanted people to know that we’re being part of the history of the church that we had to recognize as we move forward with whatever the church is going to be in the future,” said Street-Stewart. “We both said, that’s the Sankofa. The whole idea is that you’re moving forward, your feet are moving forward, to reach back and to take what was precious to allow us to take that wisdom and move forward, so it all came together.”
Street-Stewart says she and Bentley began discussing a symbol to represent them early in the decision to run.
“No question about it. It clicked when we gave voice to it, we knew it was the right thing, it wasn’t incidental or accidental, it was providential,” said Bentley. “Our slogan is,‘Learning from the past, living in the present.’ The Sankofa and the Mississippi River represent that slogan. It’s the pictorial image of that slogan.”
Since Saturday, the image has begun to appear on various Presbyterian websites and social media platforms. In fact, it has begun to appear on t-shirts and bags. Both Bentley and Street-Stewart are hopeful the symbol catches on.
“We hope so, the spirit of it, the mechanics of it, learning from the past. What is it about our past that we need to reach back and get? What’s going to be essential to help us to live victoriously and be effective in ministry and mission in the present?” Bentley asked. “We want to create a brighter and better future.”
Street-Stewart says Presbyterian communities are recognizing Sankofa as something of excellence for both African Americans and Native Americans.
“Native Americans are recognized as water protectors. We will always protect the water. In the Dakota tradition, this is where their genesis started. It’s in that water, that birthing water of your culture and people and it is so sacred,” she said. “This symbolizes the African continent, the North American continent, the original people, brought together, and we want to give honor and reflect that.”
“It’s not an idea that just came up as a great slogan, it is our people speaking to us saying when you’re there together, that’s the way we want you represented,” said Bentley.
So far, the symbol has generated a lot of positive attention, according to the new Co-Moderators.
“Overwhelmingly positive, people are just resonating with positive energy from it and we want it to spread and we want people to grab hold of it and own the spirit of it, because we believe it has something good to offer,” said Bentley.
“It should say to all people, where are those things out of your past that were so important for your people to survive, what represents that? Let’s talk about that in the Presbyterian Church. When we’re looking at our edifices, it doesn’t just only represent a western/European concept of a church building, but God’s people come from all places,” said Street-Stewart. “There are some things that represent how you survived. That’s what we think Sankofa represents. It's truly about survival.”
Bentley says the timing for this couldn’t be better.
“I don’t believe in accidents; I believe in providence. I believe God has lifted both of us for such a time as this,” he said. “It’s not just about us, it’s about the whole experience. It’s about the representation of the people. Marginalized people are being given a voice now for the whole church.”
Bentley and Street-Stewart arrived in Louisville on Wednesday to begin preparations for the assembly to resume on Friday.
“This has been very helpful. We’ve been given an overview of the set up and I’ve been blown away by the expertise that we have here. We have a crackerjack staff,” he said. “They’re really creative and have developed a new way of doing this thing in the midst of such a disruptive event.”
“This group of people know how to do this,” said Street-Stewart. “If something happens, they know what to do, so we’re feeling very confident.”