It wasn’t so much the bookmarks, but what was written on them. For there, side by side, in very close proximity sat, in a nutshell, my summer. “Voices of Sophia” read the handmade-looking bookmark on what appeared to be recycled paper, quoting Proverbs 8:1 on wisdom. The other was smooth, a vibrant blue and gray challenging me to “Live out the ancient call,” courtesy of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship.
By my observation I believe I’m one of only four people to have attained the “Triple Crown of Presbyterianism” this summer. I’m quite proud of that distinction, but I have been left a bit dazed and confused.
What is this Presbyterian triple crown? For those who dared to take the journey into the far reaches of the denominational spectrum, it began with General Assembly in June, continued with the Peacemaking Conference in July, and culminated in the Presbyterian Global Fellowship conference in August.
In a country fraught with division between red states and blue states and in a denomination trying to hold itself together like too much coffee and no bathroom in sight, it might be helpful to offer a few observations from having endured three weeks of Presbyterianism in one short summer.
A casual passer-by to any of the three conferences could not have helped noticing the Presbyterians in town. I wish I could say it was because of the compassion, generosity, or love of God emanating from the decently and in order. Of course, many in attendance were likely compassionate, generous and God-loving. But what was most obvious about the Presbyterian conference goers was hanging from their shoulders. Bags.
Presbyterians love their bags and keep those bags with them religiously.
General Assembly’s seemed to be the sturdiest of the three, good for such a “weighty” gathering. Made of a thick canvas and emblazoned with the Micah 6:8 theme, they were easy to spot on street corners in a hot June in San Jose. A quick check of the tag reveals that it is an “Enviro Tote: The Recycled Cotton Bag made from Eco Tec Yarn.” A short Google later, Eco Tec Yarn appears to be “spun from the recovered scraps of newly made clothing in a cost-efficient process that saves energy, land, water, and other resources” according to the company’s Web site. Of course the GA bags would be made with Eco Tec Yarn.
I’d love to check the tag on the Peacemaking Conference bag, but they apparently were too thrifty to waste bags on those simply registered as “Press” so I’m afraid I don’t have one. I can tell you that they appeared to be Guatemalan in craftsmanship, and, I’m guessing here, perhaps hand-made by a Fair Trade partner. No logo was displayed — why ruin the beauty of the bag tooting one’s own horn and adding an extra expense in the process? As a side note, unlike both GA and PGF (whose nametag lanyards boldly proclaimed their conference), the Peacemaking Conference used “Presbyterian Youth Triennium” lanyards from the 2007 PYT. The conference missed an opportunity for self-promotion, but found a great way to save a few bucks and make use of those PYT lanyards.
It was with trepidation that I did the tag check on the PGF bag. I was afraid that my stereotyping based on bags would hold true to the end. Vibrant blue, to match the logo and bookmark, co-branded with the PGF logo and that of Amor Ministries, the PGF bags looked good. But up close they seemed a bit, well, a bit cheap. Please don’t be made in China, I prayed silently before looking inside. “Perfect Line” said the tag. Phew. So much for caricatures, I chided myself. I turned the tag over. “Made in China,” said the other side.
What I realized, in my summer with the P(CUSA), is that it is very easy to caricature each other based on stereotyped perceptions.
“They’re too liberal and don’t care enough about Jesus. They care more about their eco-friendly bag than they do about proclaiming the Good News of the gospel.” “They’re too conservative and don’t care enough about justice. This obvious lack of concern for the poor and oppressed in this world is evidenced by their choice of bags made by presumably less than fair practices.”
Is it too much to ask for both Jesus and justice?
No, as it turns out, it is not.
I realized this in those three weeks across the denominational spectrum of the PC(USA). Here are just a few examples:
“Were we to become proclaimers of the gospel and to consistently testify to our relationship with God, the Holy Spirit might come in and take control. Boy would that be disastrous! We might just get transformed.”
“The point is to be self-expending, not self-extending — you speak their language, don’t teach them how to speak your language.”
We are also convinced that only intentional movement away from rigid denominationalism toward visible unity will lead the global church to recover its identity as one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
Which quote would you say came from which conference?
I’m not pretending that we don’t have differences within our denomination. Of course we do. Even if those differences were limited to the worship style across the three conferences (and slices of the denomination), they would be significant and possibly divisive: General Assembly, robed in its “high church” liturgical finery; Peacemaking, eclectically inclusive in its “we are all part of the choir” worship; PGF energetic in its amplified singing with hands lifted high.
Though the differences, both surface and deeper, were quite apparent for anyone with eyes to see, they were not what stayed with me.
As I drove away from the final day of the PGF Conference in August, I found that my predominant emotion that day was sadness. That sadness reminded me of an experience I had at the beginning of my summer with the PC(USA), in San Jose.
I was reporting on the Peacemaking breakfast. Whether it was random chance or divine providence, the Presbyterians For Renewal breakfast just so happened to be right next door. The two breakfasts were separated not by an actual wall but by those rather flimsy hotel ballroom dividers. As I sat in the Peacemaking breakfast, challenged and inspired by the hard work of those who had spent time in Iraq, Colombia, and the Middle East, the strangest thing happened. The PFR folks began to sing. This was not some flimsy, weak-diaphragmed attempt. No, they were belting out the hymns that flowed so resoundingly from their mouths. It was beautiful.
Sitting there I felt tears well up in my eyes. It made me wonder, what it would take to tear down that flimsy ballroom divider of a wall?
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer/photographer living in Newport Beach, Calif.