Seeking to become Co-Moderator of one of the nation’s largest religious organizations during a global pandemic may seem like bad timing, but that is not the way Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart and the Rev. Gregory Bentley see it.
“The circumstances are the circumstances,” said Bentley, “and have nothing to do with responding to a call.”
In June 2020, Street-Stewart and Bentley became the first Co-Moderators to be elected during a fully online General Assembly. They were at home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Huntsville, Alabama, respectively, rather than in a huge convention hall amid the roar of hundreds of people on their feet. After their installation, they immediately traveled to Louisville to moderate virtual plenary sessions for the 224th General Assembly. Due to ongoing travel restrictions and public health concerns, they have spent the past year engaging with Presbyterians — and each other — by way of their computers.
These strange times haven’t put a damper on their enthusiasm for serving the denomination and their collaborative spirit.
In late 2019, Street-Stewart was on her way to running and was seeking someone to stand with her. A mutual “angel,” the Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway, said she knew the perfect person and connected Street-Stewart and Bentley. It is obvious the two developed an immediate rapport. “Gregory and I can probably finish each other’s sentences at this point. We’re like the brother and sister of another mother,” Street-Stewart said as Bentley nodded in agreement during a recent Zoom call.
They quickly discovered a shared passion for racial justice, both in the Church and in the world. “We wanted to be most visible to the Church as individuals who come from Indigenous and Black communities,” said Street-Stewart. Together they selected a symbol, the Sankofa, to represent their heritages and their ministry as Co-Moderators. Bentley explained the bird is “flying forward while looking back with an egg in her mouth, which symbolizes going back, as a communion, and fetching the stuff that can be good medicine to bring healing in the body right now.”
The Co-Moderators are particularly committed to Matthew 25 and its call for the PC(USA) to focus on congregational vitality and being a church of action. They described the “Six Rs” they are using to distill their message: remembrance, remorse, repentance, repair, reconciliation and resurrection.
“When we met with San Francisco, they said there’s another one — rejoicing,” said Bentley. “We’ve been very intentional because so often when we talk about race relations we jump straight to reconciliation. No, there are some previous words you’ve missed. There has to be conciliation before there can be reconciliation.”
The inability to travel has not stopped Street-Stewart and Bentley from engaging with Presbyterians in 15 states during virtual events and visits in 16 synods and 23 presbyteries and with 18 national committees. They believe technology has actually broadened their reach and been an advantage for how they want to connect and participate.
“We don’t want to be on exhibit,” said Street-Stewart. “We really want to say, ‘Actually we’re here to learn more along with you, where are you engaged?’” Bentley said they are conscious of ensuring their Co-Moderator visits are not “performative or perfunctory.”
He said one of the signs of these times is the opportunity to “reconfigure and reimagine ministry” with virtual platforms serving as “not a replacement, but a complement” to the work of the Church. Clearly, online opportunities for studying, working and worshiping together have helped remove the myriad barriers many people face to fully participating in in-person formats.
This includes how the General Assembly does its work. The pandemic forced a new way of doing business, and Street-Stewart and Bentley said the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) did a “masterful” job of producing GA in 2020 and are now considering what the past 18 months mean for the future.
The Co-Moderators promote a shift from General Assembly being a “convention” solely responsible for decision-making to also being what Bentley describes as “a community of discernment that really takes advantage of our connectionalism in an organic way, where it’s not just about counting votes, but it’s about getting to a place where we think God is moving and we can say yes.”
“The issue of equitable access is rising to the top,” said Street-Stewart. “In the past, people-to-people contact did not ensure people were dealing with the hard truth of racism, the hard truth of opportunities that had been denied and power imbalance. As we move forward, we’re going to be mindful of saying, ‘Don’t forget some of these lessons we’ve learned, to remember the inequities and the hard stories that also mean what it is to be part of the Church now.’”
Because GA commissioners are commissioned until the next Assembly, Street-Stewart and Bentley are also focused on long-term community building and discernment among commissioners, rather than confining their experience to an eight-day mad dash. “This is an opportunity to do something fundamentally different and truly be a community, not about just the majority ruling but discerning what God is up to in our midst. It broadens the conversation. If we believe God speaks to the whole Church, then let’s be in touch with the whole Church.”
Street-Stewart said she envisions GA commissioners’ reports to presbyteries that say, “I saw the Holy Spirit at GA; this was Christ’s body at work,” rather than “It was tiring and my feet hurt.”
Bentley added, “Sometimes we fall into the trap of redundancy. If we don’t adopt another resolution at GA, we have enough good policy now in the Presbyterian Church to do the work of Christ in the world. Let’s put it into play. ‘Do this and you shall live’ (Luke 10:28). Not ‘know this and you shall live.’ We need to get to the doing, not just the knowing.”
“God has given us so many gifts to use,” Street-Stewart said. “Presbyterians, don’t keep thinking that you need to reserve this stuff or hoard it — there is a world that needs these gifts. Get up, wake up, get out there, stand up and use these gifts.”
Although the world is gradually reopening, the Co-Moderators are taking a cautious approach to their second year. General Assembly travel restrictions remain in place, vaccination rates vary widely across the country, and Street-Stewart and Bentley continue to be mindful of the devastating impact the pandemic has had on communities of color. If travel becomes a safe option, ecumenical relationships are a priority and they are especially hoping to take a trip to Ghana, the homeland of Sankofa.
At this point, there really is no going back to the before times.
“We’re figuring out new ways to express our hospitality,” said Street-Stewart. “A lot of churches have already talked about what it means to have radical hospitality. The pandemic and everything we’ve been experiencing has been saying, ‘What does it really mean to have radical hospitality? Who will step up and recognize what needs to be offered and what needs to be received?’ These things are being laid out for us by God. And the discernment is to say, ‘God, we’re hearing and we’re listening to what you’re providing for us. Let’s take this now and move it like the Sankofa bird and carry this to the future.’”
Click here for information about scheduling a visit with the Co-Moderators.
Don’t miss “Good Medicine,” hosted live by the Co-Moderators on the second Wednesday of the month at 2 p.m. (Eastern time) on the 224th General Assembly Moderators page on Facebook.