Thursday, June 28, 2018

Arch of (in)Justice: Reflections on a Pilgrimage to St. Louis for #GA223

Last week, my days were spent with over 1,000 Presbyterians from around the country who gathered in St. Louis for the 223rd General Assembly.

For those unfamiliar, the General Assembly is the national gathering of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Commissioners and delegates representing over 9,000 churches, 170 presbyteries, and 16 synods nation-wide worship, study, discern, and decide on theological positions, business items, budgets, investments, and public witness related to a wide range of social issues. The Assembly is also a chance to (re)connect with friends and colleagues, some whom I only see every two years at the event. In many ways, after perusing the schedule and overtures to be discussed, I presumed this year would predominantly be about networking. 

I did not expect #GA223 to erupt into a week-long revival and participation in God’s justice. 

More on that in a moment. 

First, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. 

On one of my morning runs (yes, I am that guy now... never intended to become that guy; used to loathe that guy), I paused and snapped the picture above of this 630 foot national landmark. Because, you know, instagram.  Intended as a symbol for westward expansion and a “gateway" to American glory, the arch casts a shadow over an old cathedral and a historic courthouse along the Mississippi River. What makes for a beautiful picture on a sunrise run also serves as a (unintended) reminder of how the church and state were (are) bedfellows in these expansive quests for glory at the expense of Native Americans whose land we stole and people we displaced and killed. 

The arch indeed casts a shadow upon both church and state, which sadly lingers still.

Then I returned from my run and landed on Psalm 24:
“Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the king of glory may come in.” 
What would the psalter have to say for this icon of empire? What about the church?

Whose glory do we usher in through our religious and political gateways? At what cost? 

Back to General Assembly. 

The week at #GA223 was both a reflection on and praxis of the kin-dom of God. We talked to great lengths about the infinite scope of God’s grace and the wideness of Christ’s embrace. As we discerned and decided together, we also committed to following our words with our feet, our statements with our activism, and our worship with our public witness. Yes, even a march down the St. Louis streets took place as we advocated for #endcashbail (see below). Say what you will about organized religion and the decline of the mainline church, Presbyterians demonstrated in St. Louis that we are indeed a called, sent, and resurrecting people committed to more than institutional preservation. We are disciples gathered and scatterered to engage our time and place(s) with relevant and liberating incarnations of the gospel.  

Sure, there were decisions made and voices lifted of which we may have disagreed. It must be said, not all of the actions taken were/are unanimously received with a sense of jubilee; neither were we lured by a belief that the church has arrived once and for all at what it means to be a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity and the created world.

Certainly not. 

Yet, as we worshipped and marched, fellowshipped and debated, elevated concerns for the incarcerated and victims of abuse, responded to ongoing realities of racism and the discrimination of LGBTQIA+ persons, exposed the exploitation of creation and prayed for nations torn by war, and even called out the realities of American empire that marginalizes people looking for refuge, there was an energy in the convention center within the shadows of an Arch that dared us to lean into the stirring of God's Spirit. It was evident, something new and different and faithful and messy and maybe a bit controversial was emerging from this body of believers; we were being reformed and still reforming

We were becoming all the more aware of the shadows cast by archways of despair, confessing our own past and present complicity in oppression; we were also being attentive to the echoes of Scripture, which dare us to live into the sacred story as we fling open the gateways to God’s kin-dom of justice and peace, reconciliation and liberation, and a concern for our neighbors most vulnerable to imperial pursuits of vain glory and expansive conquests of power. All this because we affirm this to be gospel work; this is discipleship; this is the Way of Jesus as guided by the Holy Spirit. 

And this, as mentioned, was not what I was expecting at this particular Assembly. 

As we continue to live in the past and present shadows of empire, with stories of struggle breaking every minute, I pray what we were a part of last week would move all of us to increased public witness of the Gospel between St. Louis and Baltimore, near and far, here, there, and everywhere.  May we move beyond these shadows cast and through the gateways of God’s kin-dom. May we even usher in others who have been relegated to the margins for too long.

May we also be reminded that death and despair have not the last word; God is doing something new and we are being invited to come along for the ride- together as the kindom of God. 

Lift up your heads, O church!
Be lifted up, O ancient people. 
That the Spirit of the Living God may come in
to open a gateway to justice
an arch of hope
for all who bear the sacred image,
creation that lingers for liberation. 

Here are just a few of the ways our the priestly institutional church participated in the prophetic movement of the gospel. As Rev. Cedric Portis, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church noted in worship, the Spirit is thawing out the frozen chosen. You can also check out a summary of actions the Presbytery of Philadelphia developed, aware there is much more left to say…and do.
  • Opening worship collected $47,000 to pay the bail for those who have been charged with non-violent misdemeanors, e.g. parking tickets, marijuana possession, etc., yet unable to afford the cash bail set. Some of these individuals sit detained for prolonged periods of time primarily because of their poverty as they await trial. This cash bail policy disproportionately affects people of color; the local #endcashbail movement was identified by the Hands and Feet Initiative of the Office of the General Assembly, intended to put our money where our mouth is (literally) as we gathered for business in St. Louis. 
  • It would have been one thing to collect an offering, but we marched the offering down the streets of St. Louis as hundreds of Presbyterians alongside local activists personally delivered the cash to the local organizations, Arch City Defenders and Bail Project, who will vet those who will be released. This work of the national church is a part of a larger call for restorative justice and the reform of our nation's prison and justice systems. Check out A New Jim Crow for more.  [embed my video]
  • Elected another co-moderator team, Rev. Cindy Kohlmann and Elder Vilmarie CintrĂ³n-Olivero, to lead the way for the next two years. CintrĂ³n-Olivero is the first person of Latino heritage to hold this position. 
  • Affirmed a number of items that validated the dignity and worth of LGBTQIA+ people and their vital contributions to the work and witness of the church. Many of this was approved on a consent agenda, as in, no discussion was called for and the Assembly overwhelmingly approves these actions. This is huge for a denomination that has a (recent) history of exclusion. A young man on the floor of the Assembly even came out as bi before his trusted Presbyterians, yet another sign that the PCUSA and the work of the Spirit (per our theology and polity) has moved towards inclusion of all persons who are made in the image of God. 
  • A friend of mine leveraged the stories of a mutual friend and local Philadelphian, in addition to a prepared statement by a 12-yeard old boy from our Presbytery, to speak to a call for a moratorium on the death penalty. Also approved. 
  • A statement was approved to condemn the recent presidential executive order that further cages immigrant families and children who seek asylum and refuge from various contexts of violence and oppression. Originally drafted as a condemnation of separation of families at the border and the ripping of children away from their children, possibly never to be reunited, the Assembly quickly pivoted after the signed EO and, like a crafty LeBron James 360 around a defender, the commissioners spun and threw down a two-hand jam of justice. Well done, faithful saints. 
  • There were numerous approved calls to initiate peacemaking efforts around the globe, from Central America to Sudan, Yemen to Madagascar, and Israel and Palestine.  There was also increased energy around approved actions related to peacemaking efforts on Korean Peninsula and call for nuclear disarmament, including a willingness of the U.S. to lead the way in such action. 
  • Puerto Rico was lifted up before the assembly and called for solidarity, support, and increased response from church and state as our fellow sisters and brothers continue to struggle in the wake of Hurricane Maria. 
  • Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, was approved for study and to begin the process to explore inclusion in our Book of Confessions
  • While the PCUSA has not chosen to divest from fossil fuels, choosing instead to remain at the table as we continue to apply pressure upon these corporations whose practices and products exploit God’s beloved creation, the Assembly affirmed care of the earth is a theological matter and justice concern. 
  • As I was leaving the Assembly to catch my flight, the convention hall was full of pink bowties. The Committee on General Assembly Procedures was reporting and, among other issues related to the protection of children, was advocacy for those who are victims of sexual assault and violence in both the church and larger society. This is a reminder that #metoo is also #churchtoo. 
  • A Jazz concert broke out on Thursday night, as Grammy-winner Kirk Whalum performed as a benefit for the “Hands and Feet Initiative,”which moves to Baltimore in 2020 for the 224th General Assembly.  This event not only allowed us to raise funds for the ministry’s that will take place in Charm City over the next two years, but also was a break in tradition. In many ways, the evening of rest and play was a sabbatical subversion of the efficiency and the idol of work. Yes, we broke into recess even though there was much left to do.  A practice in honoring the sabbath and keeping it holy. 
There is so much more that happened at #GA223, which does not even include the work of the Way Forward Commission, as they restructure the corporate entity of our national church. 

I continue to give thanks for the opportunity to gather at these sacred reunions that have apparently become biennial revivals. May we continue to love one another in our shared work even as we love our neighbors watching (or not) on the outside. 

Check out my tweets from the week that was: