Old rivalries resurface and suppressed resentments erupt. So it was at the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association banquet during the Big Tent event that assembled 1,500 Presbyterians in Atlanta on June 12-14. The presentation of the 2009 John Park Lee Award to Johnnie Monroe erupted into a barrage of complaints alleging a failure by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders to be agents of justice and mercy.
PHEWA is a collection of ten quasi-independent mission agencies and justice advocacy organizations, funded and overseen in part by the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) and in part by other contributions. Operating for more than five decades, “PHEWA encourages the church to be responsive to the needs of the excluded and suffering by providing programmatic, organizational, and technical assistance to Presbyterians working for justice,” according to their Web site. It has taken action by organizing networks and associations that address such matters as AIDS, child advocacy, domestic violence, physical and mental illness, reproductive rights, addictions, disabilities, and community transformation.
However, many in PHEWA have been feeling like the neglected children in the family, and that bubbled to the surface at their Big Tent banquet, with approximately 100 people attending.
The occasion was the presentation of the prestigious John Park Lee Award. Johnnie Monroe had been nominated for the award by Ronald Peters, the Henry L. Hillman Professor of Urban Ministry and Director of the Metro-Urban Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Peters’ introduction highlighted Monroe’s accomplishments, but in the process, it indicted the GAMC.
“It is an honor to introduce Johnnie Monroe tonight,” he began. “I have been blessed and inspired by his tireless social justice advocacy for ‘the least of these’ of all races since our first meeting more than 35 years ago when he was founding pastor of the Temple of the Black Messiah in Philadelphia, Pa.”
Peters contrasted Monroe’s accomplishments with recent actions of the GAMC.
“Last March 27th we all watched with sadness our denomination’s staff downsizing announcements that eliminated 14 positions in all and eight (nearly 60%) of the deleted positions had the words Peace, or Justice, or Racial Ethnic in their titles. Does not Luke report Jesus as saying Where your heart is, there will also be your treasure? It’s a sad day when words like Peace, Justice, or Racial Ethnic would become offensive words that just had to be expunged from the lists of job titles and position descriptions in our denomination.”
It’s the PHEWA members, not Johnnie, he said, who need to celebrate Monroe’s ministry. They need to recognize people like him, “who refuse to allow Jesus Christ to become some neutered iconic symbol of religiosity that runs roughshod over society’s vulnerable people, their lives and futures.”
Monroe took the podium and began quoting Scripture — passage upon passage and verse upon verse that highlight God’s call to break chains of injustice, to provide for the poor, to feed the hungry, to break every yoke. He lifted up the names of great Presbyterian leaders from the past who exemplified such efforts and who pressed the whole church to do the same. “In recent years,” he said, “something has happened to this Bible believing, justice seeking, loving denomination that we call the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Instead of transforming the world — instead of being salt and light — the church has become conformers. Instead of changing the world, we have gotten like the world – we have allowed ourselves to be changed by the world and we need to get back to the business of being the Church.”
He pressed: “Let me tell you what I see; I see a church that, like corporate companies, is seeking to balance its budget by calling out justice ministries and ministries that empower women and ministries with marginalized people. When cuts are made we cut ministries that affect the ‘least of these.’ Is not that the way of the world?
“God is not pleased with the direction the denomination is moving.”
Social advocates such as PHEWA supporters are needed to correct this misdirection, he said. They “must go from under the Big Tent and from the PHEWA gathering determined to fight for justice, determined to help somebody, determined to call this beloved church back to the business of being the church, singing as we go; ‘I’m going to live so God can use me … ’”
Both speeches were affirmed by enthusiastic, albeit, anguished applause.
Following the banquet, Linda Valentine, executive director of the GAMC, acknowledging the disappointment reflected by Peters and Monroe, told the Outlook: “It is well known that funding to national mission offices has declined for decades, necessitating repeated cutbacks.” Those cutbacks also reflect a shift in mission direction “as the missional church gets out of the pews and into the world, with mission initiated by all parts of the church.”
Also the GAMC has reoriented many ministries “from ‘providing ministry for’ to ‘equipping the church ministry.’” This strategic shift is being implemented in every department; all are “needing to adapt,” she said.
She explained that, in addition to the 14 employees let go, an additional 41 vacant positions were eliminated last March, with the largest losses coming from Theology, Education and Worship (eight staff members), Shared Services (eight), Communications and Funds development (five) and Compassion, Peace and Justice (five).
“The Compassion, Peace, and Justice ministry area remains the largest of our ministry areas in number of employees,” she assured. “And, social justice ministries are located throughout the organization, not only in that one area.
“ … We earnestly, and humbly, endeavor to [‘do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God’] … as faithful servants, good stewards of the resources provided to us and advocates for justice in a myriad of ways, working with congregations, networks, middle governing bodies and other mission initiators throughout the church and the world.” She also added, “We are grateful for the work of PHEWA and the many Presbyterians who work for a more just, compassionate, healthy, and peaceful world.”