ST. LOUIS – “We are called to do God’s will in spite of the risks, in spite of the obstacles we face.” With these words, Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Self-Development of People program, opened Big Tent 2017’s first plenary.
This fifth Big Tent, meeting in St. Louis July 6-8 and with about 600 in attendance (including speakers and staff), is rooted in the theme of “Race, Reconciliation, Reformation.” Johnson said this theme would be employed as a call for God’s people to come together and “lift up God’s holy name.” He said he hoped the conference would be a time of hope, of learning and of confirmation for participants that “God has called you to God’s will.”
“God has given us the gift of reconciliation,” he said, and called all to be one people, one spirit and one body. The “Belhar Confession teaches us that unity is a gift and an obligation. It teaches us that unity is a must, but it is not easy.”
A Presbyterian conference with this theme is needed, he said, because “we are living in a time that is reminiscent of the old days. … Violence is more common” and schools and communities are more segregated. And, this is “a time when enmity and strife seem be winning the day.”
So, what are Presbyterians to do? Johnson said that this is an opportune time to talk about what it means to be the church right now. It is also a time, he stressed, to ask: What does it mean to be the church in areas where it seems the church is no longer relevant?
Part of answering that question, he said, is looking to the context in which the church finds itself. “We are in the vicinity of one of the most significant racial events of our history,” he said, noting Big Tent is taking place near Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in 2014. In the time following Brown’s death, Johnson said, Ferguson and the St. Louis community became “a place of talking … and crying, … a place that held up a mirror to America to show us who we really are.”
So, he said, the purpose of a plenary panel is is to talk about the current context of racial strife and to “be God’s people in spite of the risks.”
Johnson moderated a panel of three local faith leaders involved in efforts to promote racial justice and reconciliation.
Clyde Crumpton, pastor at Cote Brillante Presbyterian Church and an African-American, described the church’s community as an area with many economic challenges, in need of development and with a significant homeless population.
Erin Counihan, pastor at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church and moderator of Giddings Lovejoy Presbytery, is white, and said the church she serves is small and mostly white. “Our congregation does not look like the neighborhood and our congregation is aware of that. … How do we serve the community we’re in and not just ourselves?”
Brittini Gray is a recent graduate of Eden Theological Seminary and organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United, a faith-based community organizing network. Gray is African-American and said that “pre-Ferguson,” the organization’s work was predominantly congregation-based with mostly white participants; however “post-Ferguson” their work has shifted to working with “impacted populations” – especially individuals and institutions working for racial justice.
Panel members were asked to share where they see God moving and doing powerful things in their communities. In regards to the protests that erupted after Brown’s death, Counihan stated: “I reject the whole notion that it was chaos. … The uprising that came from that was holy. It was a community saying ‘no more of this.’”
She recalled watching church members start marching, volunteering and joining neighborhood groups. “People became activists because of this work” and took their faith and call to justice seriously. Through that, she saw new friendships arise that would not have otherwise been formed.
Gray said she agreed with Counihan “to an extent,” but said she saw a lot of hesitancy and waiting from the church. If anything has been learned from Ferguson, she said, it’s that the “Spirit doesn’t always move where we think it’s gonna move.” And: “As people of faith, we have to constantly be thinking about where God” will show up.
“Wake up and stay woke” is a saying Crumpton said he hears in his community. Crumpton said Brown’s death is “a product of what America has bred and what our community has allowed to be bred and take place.” He stressed the need for stronger public education, and emphasized the need for the church to play a role in both calling for that and providing it.
As the panel discussed the systemic issues that impact the church’s work of reconciliation, Crumpton said he feels it’s important to look at cultural history alongside the biblical narrative. “When we look into how we fit into this narrative, we realize that we are somebody in the kingdom of God.”
Counihan noted, that blacks and whites “didn’t start to do this reconciliation work as equals” and at this time, “God is reforming us to be something” that hasn’t been yet achieved.
Gray agreed, noting that white people need to step up, because “it is too heavy” to rely on people of this color to do the work to fix “a system that we did not create.”