The week before the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace received a 2023 Distinguished Alumnus Award from Princeton Theological Seminary, the Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022) spoke to the news service about her first year leading the assembly alongside the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis.

Santana-Grace lifted up the congregational heart of the denomination, the work of seminaries preparing students for new worship contexts and the friends and family who have supported her trailblazing career. She spoke with equal passion and frankness about hopes for the church and the challenges it faces — some new, some not so new.

Reluctant to give advice or impose solutions on others, Santana-Grace repeatedly recommended the renewable resource that is the wisdom and ingenuity of people engaging in ministry across the country and overseas — those she’s met and those who work in the wider light and shadows of their communities.

“Trust your people,” she said. “People will give you the benefit of the doubt if they feel you care about them.”

Ruth Santana-Grace at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 15, 2023. Photo by Brenton Thompson.

Ruth Santana-Grace at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 15, 2023. Photo by Brenton Thompson.

Santana-Grace, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, had just returned to Philadelphia from a co-moderator visit to the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. In Nashville, she learned about the mid council’s 80 churches, including a host of new ministry initiatives. She said that listening is the most important part of her church travel.

The Plateau neighborhood in East Nashville was one place of special inspiration. “There are all these tiny churches being inclusive in every way imaginable,” she said. “People are concerned about the health and food of people in their community who have only modest resources.

“The local places have always been the foundation of the church. Everything else we create is about resourcing congregations. The presbytery exists for the church, not the other way around. Without congregational witness I — as presbytery leader, as co-moderator — don’t exist, nor should I. The heart of the church is local.”

Stories of congregations using new resources to grow incubated and long-standing ministries have deep resonance for Santana-Grace. They inspire other ministry innovations and bring people together inside a worshiping community, providing a shared narrative of accomplishment to build on.

“That’s the primary reason Shavon and I stood for co-moderators,” she said. “We don’t tell those stories enough as a church.” Another Nashville example is the Nueva Vida Church, “which is feeding 100 people a week, 400 to 500 a month, as well as providing [English as a second language] classes, community fund-raisers and working with a local medical team.”

Santana-Grace shared other church stories from around the country, including an outreach effort in San Jose Presbytery where a boat captain sails people from the neurodivergent community around the Pacific while having devotional discussions. Closer to her home is the New River Presbyterian Church that began as the West Philadelphia Presbyterian Partnership, a newly replanted congregation comprised of three pre-existing ministries, including First African American Presbyterian Church — the first Black Presbyterian church in the United States.

The partnership saw the presbytery working with church leaders and members to align resources and ministry goals, an effort that lasted five years, including pandemic delays and a building fire. The difficulties the partnership and presbytery overcame lend an extra brilliance to its accomplishment. When Santana-Grace talked about it on Zoom her eyes lit up.

Friends, family and leaders from the Presbytery of Philadelphia attending Ruth Santana-Grace’s “This is my story” talk, May 15. Photo by Brenton Thompson.

Friends, family and leaders from the Presbytery of Philadelphia attending Ruth Santana-Grace’s “This is my story” talk, May 15. Photo by Brenton Thompson.

The technology that launched so many newly imagined ministries during the pandemic is a tool she sees as important for connecting people and pointing them to the gospel. “But tech will never replace incarnation,” Santana-Grace said. “God uses virtual people to invite people back together.” Gatherings can be small or large, such as the last day of the 222nd General Assembly (2016), when the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, II was elected stated clerk.

“I remember being in the room and feeling the spirit,” Santana-Grace said about that day inside the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. “I remember his being elected and me crying.”

As for Nelson’s upcoming retirement, she is immensely grateful “for him pivoting our focus to being a more faithful and relevant witness in the world. There’s no turning back now. That is a gift.” Santana-Grace added that the church should look for ways to bolster the church-wide administrative support available to the stated clerk, whose work as chief ecclesial officer is so demanding in these times, including the commission effort unifying the Presbyterian Mission Agency and Office of the General Assembly.

Santana-Grace’s congregation-first approach has her thinking about ways to form stronger connections between national agencies with councils at every level. In Tennessee, she talked with a pastor about “the cultural polarity we have now in the country” and how that dynamic is impacting local ministries. Whatever work is done to bridge initiatives and to resource congregations and mid councils, “the church must not water down our witness.”

“We were asking many of the same cultural and political questions when I graduated from Princeton in ’94,” Santana-Grace said. “How do we break the assumptions that keep our churches paralyzed? Because assumptions are the termites of relationships. Assumptions keep us in bondage.”

Asking the right questions is an important early step to solving problems in any ministry setting and avoiding cookie-cutter approaches in times of transition, such as quickly closing churches or forcing mergers. “I say trust the Spirit,” she said. “You don’t need a concrete plan but you do need a direction and you need to stay together.”

Starling-Louis and Santana-Grace are asked to work quarter-time as co-moderators of the General Assembly, an allotment Santana-Grace acknowledges is not enough given the tasks at hand. They split recurring meetings (Starling-Louis attends those of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and Santana-Grace those of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly) and travel. This summer Santana-Grace will attend the Montreat Youth Conference and also visit the Pacific Islands, including the Marshall Islands and Kiribati. Starling-Louis is scheduled to visit Ghana and Liberia; earlier this year she traveled to South Sudan. The international trips connect to actions by the 225th General Assembly as well as the co-moderators’ theme of “Unbounded We Thrive,” a throughline from the assembly to last fall’s Moderator’s Conference.

“We wanted to go to places that have been historically neglected,” Santana-Grace said.

During Advent she hopes to visit Puerto Rico. “I’m a child of diaspora. In the past decade I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with the island of my ancestors. I’m excited to see how the church is responding to today’s realities.”

One of her favorite memories from her first year as co-moderator was preaching together with Starling-Louis during an ecumenical service at the United Nations.

“Wherever we can be together it really works,” Santana-Grace said. “When you think that before last year we didn’t even know each other’s names! God has done something profound putting us together.”

Shavon Starling-Louis (left) and Ruth Santana-Grace (right) during ecumenical worship at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations, March 6, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ruth Santana-Grace.

Shavon Starling-Louis (left) and Ruth Santana-Grace (right) during ecumenical worship at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations, March 6, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ruth Santana-Grace.

Santana-Grace’s own story was on her mind as she prepared to give a “This Is My Story” talk at Princeton Theological Seminary, scheduled for the day before she received her 2023 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

The Rev. Alex Evangelista, co-vice chair with the PTS Alumni Association Executive Council (AAEC) bestowing the honor, shared some of the reasons Santana-Grace stood out to the council, including “her being the first person of color and woman vice chair on the PTS board, her ministry and work in Philadelphia Presbytery and San Gabriel Presbytery before that and now serving as co-moderator.” Evangelista called Santana-Grace “a mentor, trailblazer and friend. She has been able to persevere in her love for the church with her heart and her mind. God has blessed her with wisdom, discernment and leadership.”

The Rev. Charles “Chip” Hardwick, AAEC Alumni Trustee, said that the group looks for honorees “who have both contributed a lot back to Princeton as well as to the greater church” and “are leading the church to have an impact in the world.

“Ruth loves the church and loves God. She is such a joy to be around, a real gift who speaks the truth. She’ll say hard things if required in a way that makes you listen and learn.”

PTS President the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton introduced Santana-Grace during the award ceremony, citing her achievements at the presbytery, seminary and national levels. He pinpointed her focus on “reinvesting resources into local congregations and breathing new life into communities facing new challenges and uncertainties,” as well as her infectious spirit. “Whenever you meet young ministers who have had the privilege of working with Ruth, they light up!”

Watch Jonathan Lee Walton’s introduction, video courtesy of Zac Alan, Presbytery of Philadelphia.

As Evangelista and Walton pointed out, Santana-Grace is widely known for breaking ground — in addition to her “first” service on the PTS board she was the first woman and person of color to be installed in the 300-plus year history of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Such accomplishments are even more noteworthy given her late start to vocational ministry, which she describes as “my second career.”    

At the seminary Santana-Grace spoke about a theme she explored in “Faith of our Mothers, Living Still: Princeton Seminary Women Redefining Ministry” — "the light that defies darkness.”

“This light is not a white stagnant light but the light of the aurora borealis,” Santana-Grace said. “A real light that dances, whispering, ebbing and flowing across a many-colored spectrum. It’s the movement of the light of God that can’t be contained.

“Even when there is a darkness that sends a message that we’re not enough, physically we’re compromised, we’re feeling grief … still God’s light is more powerful and radiates hope.”

“My joy is not a Pollyanna joy,” Santana-Grace added. “I’m talking about a light that sustains us through the muck, a light that is relentless. I trust it will show up as long as I take care to be present.”

The staff members, board directors and students at PTS and other seminaries glow with that refulgence.

“Our seminaries have been asking themselves questions about their role in the church,” Santana-Grace said, with curriculum changes and more bi-vocational opportunities two ways they are responding to this moment in church history. “Seminaries are connecting with what the church needs in 2023, including the reality that most new churches will be smaller congregations. They are asking: how to we provide people with training for that?”

Ruth Santana-Grace with husband Edward (left), Jonathan Lee Walton (center-right), and son Dakota (right), May 16, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ruth Santana-Grace.

Ruth Santana-Grace with husband Edward (left), Jonathan Lee Walton (center-right), and son Dakota (right), May 16, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ruth Santana-Grace.

Starling-Louis and Santana-Grace attended the recent inauguration of President José R. Irizarry at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and virtually sent greetings to President Victor Aloyo Jr. at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Both co-moderators plan to attend the inauguration ceremony of Walton in Princeton in the fall. He began his work as PTS president in January.

Santana-Grace called Walton “the right person for the job. He was trained by Princeton and has close connections to people in the area. In today’s world a school president needs to be a vision caster, to convince alum that the institution is worthy of them. Jonathan has an uncanny capacity to be out in the world talking to people about who we are.”

Moderating the plenary sessions of the 225th General Assembly beside Starling-Louis, having seminary presidents as friends, keynoting events such as PTS’s alumni reunion — Santana-Grace joked that her “invisibility cloak” has been removed. “It’s all very humbling. For most of my career I’ve focused on presbytery work, Princeton Seminary and the board of the Presbyterian Foundation. I’ve tried to spend time loving my people.

“I was 39 when I went to Princeton as a part of my second career. It was freeing and challenging. Later I joined the board as the first class with term limits. When I left 12 years later I thought, ‘This is a really cool group of people to work with.’”

In the days before the award Santana-Grace was thinking about her parents, the Rev. Felix Santana and Ruling Elder Carmen Santana, whose congregational service included leading the Hispanic Presbyterian Church in New York City.

“When I was in Tennessee, I preached about my parents’ story,” she said. “Wow! When I left the East Coast for the West East Coast years ago and needed to pull my son from his school I thought ‘This is hard.’ I don’t know what made my mother leave her island when she was 22, and then bring over her sisters with money she earned from making paper party hats. And I don’t know what made my father go to work in a steel mill and go to war in Korea. He studied in Maine and his first church call was in Ossining, New York. My foundation is these two people who said yes in the midst of a world that said no.”

Miriam Olivero, whom Santana-Grace calls her adopted mom, is an extended family member from New York City who attended the award reception in Princeton. Santana-Grace said she had also been thinking a lot about Olivero’s husband, Jack, who passed away soon after the 225th General Assembly. They have both been present in every chapter of her life for the past 45 years, including her graduation from PTS in 1994. 

Ruth Santana-Grace (left) with Miriam Olivero (right), Princeton, May 2023. Photo courtesy of Ruth Santana-Grace.

Ruth Santana-Grace (left) with Miriam Olivero, Princeton, May 2023. Photo courtesy of Ruth Santana-Grace.

Santana-Grace has countless other stories to draw on from her time as presbytery leader, pastor and expert in public administration (her first career). The stories bridge the places she’s worked and ministered and learned, going back to Princeton, Italy, California, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee. The places always bring her back to the people.

There’s a lesson there that church leaders of every generation can learn from. “Love and respect the people that you are called to serve,” she said. “Trust your people.”

As she expressed her gratitude for the distinguished alumnus award, Santana-Grace offered up an ancient word from the Bantu languages of Africa she had learned from the people she serves: “Ubuntu.”

 It means, “I am because of who we are. / Yo soy porque nosotros somos.” She said it was the only word that came to mind.