They both slept some following their election Saturday night as Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly. But by the time they appeared on GA Live Sunday morning, the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace and the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis still seemed in awe of just how good God has been despite all the work before them.
“It’s been amazing to watch for signs of the Spirit’s presence,” Starling-Louis told host Fred Tangeman, a GA news reporter. “When you can laugh and cry together at the same time, it’s the best part of being the church.”
“After 28 years of ministry, without joy I wouldn’t be here,” Santana-Grace said. “We are having so much fun in the midst of hard work.”
Commissioners elected the new Co-Moderators by a 203-151 margin Saturday. Starling-Louis is pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Santana-Grace is executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Watch their half-hour conversation with Tangeman here.
The Co-Moderators met one another for the first time March 17.
“I called it speed-dating,” Santana-Grace said with a laugh. She thought: “Either we connect or we don’t.” What helped, she said, is that both of their communities called them to stand for Co-Moderators, endorsing them for the office they now hold.
“That was helpful for me, coming from where I did,” said Santana-Grace, whose father was a sugarcane cutter as a boy. She called it a blessing “to be able to walk into that space knowing we had something to offer the Church, that we were worthy.”
While it may be too soon to discuss their long-term plans as Co-Moderators, “we are committed to the justice realm and the congregation-equipping place,” Santana-Grace said. “The local church is the heartbeat of our denomination. They are tired and discouraged.”
“We want to be encouragers of what’s transformative at the local level,” Santana-Grace said. “There is some grief and loss out there, and so we want to reframe the conversation and build on Matthew 25 and decolonizing.”
Rest and sabbath “are a big value for both of us,” Santana-Grace said, adding that the presbytery she leads recently won a Lily Endowment grant designed to help pastors flourish, “to confirm they are Imago Dei and they are enough. If we can make that difference in a generation of pastors, it’s enough reason to say, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’”
“This has been a withering time for people,” Starling-Louis said of the past two years. “We have aged and we have to acknowledge our bodies and minds need care, and God has called us to be stewards of all that.”
“As Presbyterians, we can live in our heads and be product-oriented,” said Starling-Louis, tying both of those qualities to the sin of white supremacy culture. “What you do is a reflection of who you are, as opposed to, ‘God is in you and you are made very good.’”
Both Co-Moderators “are products of saying, ‘Our faith has sustained us,’” Santana-Grace said. “I love being a people of the impossible. That’s what we claim to believe, and in this season, that’s the story for a lot of people.”
Tangeman recalled that during a press conference Saturday following their election and installation, Starling-Louis called being a pastor “a weird job.”
It is, she insisted. One minute, the pastor is inserting a plunger into a church toilet. The next moment, she’s holding the hand of a dying parishioner. “I’ve held a newborn baby and I’ve baptized an 82-year-old,” Starling-Louis told Tangeman.
As they moderate plenary sessions scheduled for July 5-9, “who we are will be woven throughout,” Santana-Grace said. “We have some serious issues coming before [the General Assembly] … We’re entitled to vote no, but we aren’t entitled to be jerks, to be disrespectful.” The joke among presbyters in the Presbytery of Philadelphia is “don’t make her walk up the middle aisle,” she said.
“When people know you will honor them, they tend not to act out,” Santana-Grace said. Rather, they act out when they feel lost and unseen.
While holding plenary sessions via Zoom can feel impersonal for some, “there is a gift in seeing all those faces,” Starling-Louis said. Commissioners have been called together to offer their gifts, she said. She said she’ll use her own empathic gifts to determine, for example, if commissioners are indeed ready to vote. “That’s the difference between feeling honored and dishonored,” she said. “It won’t be perfect, but it will be whole.”
“When people believe you care,” Santana-Grace said, “they can disagree with you without freaking out.”
Watch GA Live here beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time each day of the 225th General Assembly.