On Saturday morning, the Revs. Shavon Starling-Louis and Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly, discussed their first year in that call. Having stood for election with the theme “Unbounded we thrive,” the two continue to preach a message of abundance, accountability and possibility to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly (2022) Shavon Starling-Louis (left) and Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, Salt and Light Church, Philadelphia, July 29, 2023.

Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly (2022) Shavon Starling-Louis (left) and Ruth Faith Santana-Grace at Salt and Light Church in Philadelphia, July 29, 2023.

Speaking during a pre-presbytery meeting at Salt and Light Church in Southwest Philadelphia, the co-moderators reflected on their domestic and international travel as denominational ambassadors; shared concerns and ideas they’ve been hearing from Presbyterians at mid councils, congregations and seminaries; and described preparations underway for the 226th General Assembly, including their assistance to the ongoing Unification Commission.

Starling-Louis, senior pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, described traveling to South Sudan, Liberia and Ghana, and her conviction to “be a good sibling” to the African churches partnering with the PC(USA). Santana-Grace, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, recounted her moving recent experiences at the Montreat Youth Conference, where she connected with 1,200 young people and felt strengthened by their support. Late in the conversation she and Starling-Louis urged the PC(USA) to increase its outreach to younger Presbyterians, calling them “the future and present of the church.”

The co-moderators described feeling fortunate to have each other as co-pilots on their General Assembly journey. Santana-Grace would later introduce Starling-Louis to the full presbytery gathering as “my spiritual sister,” adding that her life had been blessed because Starling-Louis said yes to the call of standing for election with her.

The 45-minute pre-presbytery conversation was recorded by Kristen Gaydos of the Presbyterian Historical Society and can be watched below. Audience members and Fred Tangeman of the Office of the General Assembly asked questions of the co-moderators.

Later that morning, during the presbytery’s opening worship service, Starling-Louis gave a sermon, “Rejoice Always,” beginning with a reading from Philippians 4:4.

Santana-Grace had encouraged worshipers to welcome Starling-Louis to the pulpit with colored ribbons. The sermon was equally bright, with Starling-Louis preaching that joy persists in every place and every time. “There’s a joy in watching joy,” she said.

“Jesus is the center of my joy … Philippians lifts up the imperative to rejoice in the Lord always.

“We need joy in particular when things are not going right … There is nothing like the joy of knowing the one who sustains your breath when you feel breathless.”

Later in the service, the Rev. Cean James of Salt and Light Church asked for prayers for members of the local community who had been killed, wounded or traumatized by a mass shooting on July 3. Joy is never so valued as when tragedy makes it feel impossibly remote.

The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022) preaches at Salt and Light Church in Philadelphia, July 29, 2023.

The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022), preaches at Salt and Light Church in Philadelphia, July 29, 2023.

Starling-Louis said that Paul is telling the Philippians, “We can always have joy … I believe God seeks us when we seek God. Prayer is the answer to anxiousness.”

She shared what she called “random observations of joy” from her own life to encourage worshipers to notice their own everyday graces — from hearing Santana-Grace’s husband describe finding God in complicated theories, to seeing a finch drawn to her home garden, to a miraculously reborn house plant.

“Ruth and I shared a holy vision that as a church we can thrive if we live in unbounded ways ... There is joy in the spiritual acknowledgement of the One … We are able to prepare a way that has never been before.”

Starling-Louis closed her sermon with a memory she touched on during the pre-presbytery conversation — meeting history-making theologian Dr. Mercy Oduyoye in Ghana.

“I felt the joy of being in her presence,” she said. At one point the 88-year-old Oduyoye took Starling-Louis’s hand so they could stand up together.

Starling-Louis wished the presbytery to always “be able to rise … You will not be stopped. That is a joy the world can’t take away.”

After leading the congregation in lines from “Jesus, You’re the Center of My Joy,” a joyously tearful Starling-Louis gave a concluding “Amen” and returned to the pews, where she hugged her sister co-moderator.

At the conclusion of Saturday’s meeting, Presbytery of Philadelphia members and guests gathered for lunch at The Common Place. Afterwards a group traveled through the streets of the surrounding Kingsessing neighborhood, a prayer walk in remembrance of victims of the July 3 mass shooting. Pastors and staff from The Common Place and Salt and Light Church led the way.