The pandemic restricted travel for the Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly, the Rev. Gregory Bentley and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart. But it hardly slowed them down.
“Over the span of our term we have had over 100 engagements with congregations, presbyteries, synods and various other entities and agencies of the church,” Bentley and Street-Stewart wrote in their recently submitted “Co-Moderators' Report of the 224th General Assembly to the 225th General Assembly,” available through PC-Biz or in Word. Most of those meetings were virtual, like so much of life in the past two years. But the Co-Moderators’ embrace of technology allowed them to find their ways to thousands of PC(USA) screens, and through Zoom and other digital media to the minds and hearts of Presbyterians.
Throughout their 24 months of leadership the two have referred to themselves as “a brother and sister from another mother” and worked with a kin-dom spirit. Sometimes siblings don’t get along, but here the comparison breaks down. Mutual support has been a hallmark of their teamwork serving the church, along with their commitment to urging it forward in action. Even if the church has a long way to go in living out its calls for justice, the Co-Moderators’ message has been consistent, clear and impassioned.
Co-Moderators have led the Assembly since 2016, when the Rev. Denise Anderson and the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston were elected at GA222. As with Anderson and Edmiston, and their GA223 successors, Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and the Rev. Cindy Kohmann, Street-Stewart and Bentley have divided appearances and responsibilities, with Street Stewart representing the pair at Office of the General Assembly (OGA) gatherings and Bentley doing the same for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). The Co-Moderators have worked together throughout the planning of the 225th General Assembly, including its worship, committee and plenary programs.
In their Co-Moderators' Report, Bentley and Street-Stewart discussed their leadership take-aways, including lessons for future Co-Moderators around the continued use of “hybridity” — a term Bentley has used to describe mixing the strengths of in-person meetings with online ones — and fostering hope “where ground was plowed and seeds of love and justice were sown that will take root and bear fruit for coming generations.” The egg in the beak of the Sankofa bird — the Co-Moderators’ symbol since standing for election in 2020 — is another image of growth they have referenced.
A feature of the GA224 Co-Moderators’ tenure has been reckoning with the church’s past, including its history of injustice toward non-white communities and individuals.
“Our church is full of truths that sometimes are hard to reconcile with our histories and practices,” they wrote in the report. “To deepen this notion … we formulated what we called the 6 Rs: REMEMBRANCE, REMORSE, REPENTANCE, REPAIR, RECONCILIATION, and RESURRECTION. A seventh R, REJOICING, was added after an engagement with the San Francisco Presbytery.”
Those principles featured prominently in “Good Medicine,” a video series that finished in April where the Co-Moderators hosted discussions with others inside and outside the church around the theme of decolonization. The series is archived here.
“Dr. Edgar Villanueva’s terrific book 'Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance' became a source of inspiration for the series and was the beginning topic of our very first podcast,” the Co-Moderators wrote. “We recommended the book as a churchwide study choice as well. Subsequent guests not only brought diverse perspectives; their voices spoke to lived experiences of Indigenous and African empowerment and revitalization.”
Topics included sessions on decolonizing theological education (with Matthew Williams), congregational ministry (Lukata Mjumbe), worship (Lisa Allen-McLaurin), the church (J. Herbert Nelson, II), environmental infrastructures (Catherine Coleman Flowers) and Holy Week (Brenda Blackhawk and Mark Lomax).
An eighth “Re” could have been included in the report: Restore — as in Restorative Actions, the Co-Moderators’ choice to receive the upcoming Assembly’s worship offering.
According to the GA225 website, Restorative Actions “is an economic justice initiative that encourages mid councils, congregations, individuals and interested organizations to surrender wealth that is attributable to white supremacy …. Convinced by Hebrews 11:1, ‘Our faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,’ Restorative Actions is faithful discipleship as we begin our journey from lament to hope.”
Street-Stewart spoke at length about restorative justice during PHS Live in February, pointing out the connection between past injustice and present-day disparities of wealth and opportunity. Throughout that discussion with the Presbyterian Historical Society she referenced her own experiences as a descendent of the Delaware Nanticoke Tribe, reminding audiences of the personal impact of such legacies.
In their report, Street-Stewart and Bentley focused on one of their biggest inspirations during the past two years, the Matthew 25 invitation, with its call for “building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.” Street-Stewart was an early supporter of Matthew 25 through her leadership in the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. Both Co-Moderators spoke favorably about the Matthew 25 invitation while standing for election in 2020.
In a recently recorded discussion with PMA President the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett (who also appeared on the “Good Medicine” series) and Acting Senior Director of Communications the Rev. DeEtte Decker, the Co-Moderators spoke about Matthew 25 having a special role to play in “transforming” the church — a word Bentley prefers to descriptions of a declining PC(USA).
In the discussion, which aired on the “Being Matthew 25” livestream Thursday, (on the PC(USA) Facebook page as well as the church’s YouTube channel), Stewart-Street and Bentley urged service-oriented leadership at every level of the church. “As a pastor’s wife I mowed the grass, cleaned out the refrigerator, was the Sunday school teacher,” Street-Stewart said. “Gregory and I are both of the people.”
Serving and listening have prepared them for questions the church will consider at GA225, and added to their sense of belonging —something both think is fundamental to all forms of ministry.
“Being a part of something bigger is a key to belonging,” Bentley said. “People go from belonging into belief.”
Sustaining belief means being relevant in your communities and grappling with Society’s largest problems — speaking truth to power, but also “doing things.”
“We have a lot of smart people in the PC(USA),” Bentley said, “but there is a knowing-doing gap.”
Street-Stewart said, “It’s important for Presbyterians to show the world that our orderliness is about being prepared and equipped to respond to anything that arises.”
Bentley seconded his sister. “I love that we lift up doing things decently and in order, and we shun chaos and confusion. But orderliness doesn’t mean dead and without spirit. We need to put ardor back into our order.”
The Co-Moderators have a chance to reprise that message and others from the past two years during the first day of the 225th General Assembly, Sunday, June 18, when they will gavel the first plenary into session following opening worship. Join them on-screen and in hopeful spirit via the GA 225 website.