Using old-fashioned, hand-written ballots, the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elected Heath K. Rada – the only ruling elder in the mix – as its moderator on the first ballot on June 14, in a night made surreal by difficulties with the assembly’s voting system.
After the election, Rada approached the stage hand-in-hand with his wife, Peggy, with whom he celebrated his 48th wedding anniversary two days before the assembly convened its meeting in Detroit.
The assembly elected Rada on the first ballot, earning 331 votes (52 percent) compared to 157 votes (25 percent) for John Wilkinson of Rochester, New York, and 143 votes (23 percent) for Kelly Allen of San Antonio, Texas, both teaching elders – with Rada earning just over half the votes and Wilkinson and Allen essentially splitting the rest.
Rada is a former president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond (now part of Union Presbyterian Seminary) and retired in 2004 as chief executive officer of the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross. God called him to that work “as intentionally as if I were called to be a teaching elder,” Rada told the commissioners. He now lives in Montreat, North Carolina, and was nominated by the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
Rada, a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, serves on the boards of the Montreat Conference Center and the Presbyterian Homes of North Carolina, and is a member of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. Rada graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University and earned a master of arts from what’s now Union Presbyterian Seminary and a doctorate in education from North Carolina State University.
The white-haired Rada said he first said “No” when asked to consider standing for moderator – telling those who approached him at a NEXT Church meeting that “I don’t think I represent the face of our denomination any longer.” But people encouraged him to step forward, telling him he had gifts for reconciliation and building connections the church would find valuable.
Rada said he agreed to run if those encouraging him would help him find a partner for the task – and he chose as his vice-moderator Larissa Kwong Abazia, a younger Chinese-American pastor who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills, in Queens, New York.
“I can’t thank you enough for the faith you put in me tonight,” Rada told the assembly after his election, promising that he and Abazia would do all they could to show the PC(USA)’s love. “If I had the power tonight, I would fix every single glitch,” Rada said – referring mostly to technology but also to the many difficulties the denomination faces.
In his initial presentation and later in 45 minutes of answering questions from commissioners, Rada stressed his experience as a bridge-builder.
He described a t-shirt he’d seen which says: “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite!” Throughout his career, Rada said, he worked to blot out that idea – encouraging seminary students to exchange ideas and understand that those with differing views had something to offer; to resolve conflict working with contentious Red Cross chapters in San Diego and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
He described a child who approached his group while visiting Red Cross leaders and politicians in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. “He said to me, ‘Mr. Red Cross, can you help me find my mom? I haven’t seen her since the storm.’ Some of those on the scene were immersed in ego and had “lost sight of what mattered,” Rada said.
Asked about the gifts that gays and lesbians bring the church, he encouraged Presbyterians to stop labeling people and said: “Let’s allow people to be God’s children and love one another.”
Both Allen and Wilkinson stressed their experience as pastors and their hope and certainty that Presbyterians – despite all the denomination’s difficulties – would continue to make an impact both around the world and in individuals’ lives. “Let’s double-down on trust and choose to be the church,” Wilkinson said. “This dying and being alive in Christ is the persistent rhythm of our courage,” Allen said.
In a news conference following his election, Rada was asked what in his experience has prepared him to help the church deal with the intensity of conflict it is facing in these days. He responded that “the most dramatic experience” was when the fires were threatening San Diego and the Red Cross chapter there was being criticized for mismanagement. “I was sent there to be interim,” Rada said. “My presence wasn’t appreciated by a board that had been fired by the national board.”
He solicited names of the most compassionate leaders in the community. Several were nominated over and over again, and Rada asked them to be board members. Together they moved the chapter away from constant media scrutiny and things turned around.
When asked in the press conference how he will address and interpret controversial decisions that might come from the assembly, Rada said, “The role of the moderator is to listen carefully,” and then while speaking publicly, “to interpret the decisions of the assembly, not to impose my feelings of that.” Enlarging the point, he added that the moderator should “listen to the subtleties of the assembly and be a good representative of the assembly.”
As much as the election itself, the technological spasms of the assembly’s voting system provided the discordant theme song of the night. First, a finicky internet connection forced the Office of the General Assembly to scrap its use of electronic voting. “The physics have beat us in this room,” said Tom Hay, director of operations. Periodically, the live-stream of the meeting crashed.
Over the course of the night, Hay and stated clerk Gradye Parsons led the commissioners through testing just about every possible combination. Voting with clickers. Advisory delegates voting with red cards. The advisory delegates voting with larger red cards (because folks in the back couldn’t see the smaller ones).
Finally, well after 10 p.m., the advisory delegates gave their recommendations using the large red voting cards – and the assembly staff distributed old-fashioned paper ballots to the 654 voting commissioners (327 teaching elders and 327 ruling elders elected by 172 presbyteries), while a music team lead singing from the new Presbyterian hymnal and clumps of people clustered in conversations all over the room – both commissioners and observers. “Seems like a hot mess,” tweeted one pundit.