LOUISVILLE – Yes, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will hold its General Assembly in St. Louis from June 16-23, 2018. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly voted Sept. 21 to reaffirm that and to say “we believe God has led us to this place at this time.”
The committee also voted to encourage Presbyterians to go to St. Louis before, during and after the General Assembly to engage in service and justice work.
Some have raised questions recently about whether the PC(USA) should pull the assembly out of St. Louis both as a form of economic protest and to protect the safety of people of color who’ll be attending.
Police have arrested more than 120 people during protests in downtown St. Louis following the acquittal on Sept. 15 of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer who had been charged with murder after shooting a black driver, Lamar Smith, five times in 2011. Racial justice in St. Louis has been an issue long before that – with the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 firing up the tensions.
The NAACP has issued a travel warning raising concerns about the safety of African-Americans traveling to Missouri, and the General Assembly Meeting Service has responded to that warning.
J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), said he’s been hearing this week from Presbyterians who say: “Please don’t move the assembly. We need to go” to St. Louis.
“We will make a great statement by going and by setting up ways by which we can address those issues” of injustice, Nelson said. “I’m excited about it, quite frankly.”
Nelson also said the cost if the denomination broke its contracts to hold the assembly in St. Louis would be more than $1.2 million.
He outlined plans for how the PC(USA) can make an impact, including through its Hands and Feet initiative; by supporting the work of Presbyterians and other justice activists who are deeply engaged in community work in St. Louis; through conversations with local elected officials; and through service work at community gardens and urban mission projects and in flood recovery, possibly including a 48-hour build of a Habitat for Humanity house during the assembly.
There also will be an effort as mid council leaders gather in St. Louis for a series of meetings Oct. 13-17 (what was formerly referred to as Polity Conference) to consider how those leaders can discuss these issues and opportunities with General Assembly commissioners from their presbyteries, said Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk for the Office of the General Assembly.
The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, of which St. Louis is a part, has sent an open letter asking Presbyterians to come.
“As people called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, we find ourselves having the hard conversations in our pews, joining our neighbors to march in the streets, organizing with ecumenical and community partners, and meeting with public and elected officials, to do that holy work of justice,” that letter states. “To help be a part of bringing change to our city and region. Rather than deterring us from inviting you to our city, the creative turbulence and divine disruption in our streets has reinforced our commitment to welcome the 223rd General Assembly to St. Louis. We are eager to engage the PC(USA) in honest and direct conversations about racism, and the systems that divide us economically and politically in this country.”
The situation in St. Louis offers a chance for Presbyterians to learn much, Nelson said.
“The lay of the land has changed significantly in the United States,” he said. “We can no longer be a 91 percent white church and grow into the future.”
If Presbyterians who attend General Assembly get out into the community, that can be away to show them “some of the realities,” Nelson said. “This is a marvelous time and a significant time for us to make a turn, the beginning of the turn. Because the next two General Assemblies following that will be Baltimore – and so we are stuck back in this again, with the Lord’s help” – and then Columbus, Ohio.
“This does not happen by happenstance,” Nelson said. “We plan General Assemblies for years out. We have fallen into the mainstream of the struggle . . . where the battle lines are drawn in communities. And St. Louis right now in this moment is fighting over these battle lines. This is deeper than just a few people getting killed,” although he acknowledged the pain their families have experienced is intense and ongoing. The struggle is about the hope and the future of the city, Nelson said.
Bringing the General Assembly to St. Louis gives the PC(USA) a chance “to do something on the ground, so that when we leave there it has not just been another meeting where we leave the community as bad as when we came,” or even just had an economic impact, “but where we actually put some feet on our prayers.”
It’s a chance “for us to be the church,” Nelson said – to go to public demonstrations; to build relationships with community and elected leaders; “to make it very clear that we are not just bringing X amount of people to an assembly and putting money into the city,” but that the PC(USA) includes 1.3 million voters “who can have some influence over electoral politics” in their own communities. “And we are not a poor denomination. We have people in high places.”
Denise Anderson, co-moderator of the 2016 General Assembly, said that before COGA began considering this publicly, she was hearing from Presbyterians who said “we need to pull out, in consideration of our siblings of color. They’re not safe there. My response is: ‘We’re not safe anywhere in this country.’ ”
And the deluge of messages she’s received this week urging the PC(USA) not to move the assembly “tells me we’ve got people who are ready to engage,” Anderson said.
“I don’t think we have a choice. We have got to go.”
COGA members talked about arriving early, before the assembly starts, to do service and justice work locally.
“How can we get commissioners out” of the convention center, to learn about the realities in St. Louis? asked Wilson Kennedy, the committee’s vice-moderator and an elder from Virginia. Commissioners need to see “this is OK, this is safe, as the church we put ourselves in vulnerable places.”
Marcia Mount Shoop, a minister from North Carolina, pushed back on using the language of “safety.”
That language “is a white construct that somehow we can sequester ourselves into a safe place,” Mount Shoop said. “We are all vulnerable. Some of us are more vulnerable than others … because of the way race functions in our society.”
And “part of the call of a Christian community is to be in solidarity, to stand in solidarity, and not to kid myself and think I get to pick safety instead of vulnerability.”
Concerns about safety don’t just involve what happens outside a Presbyterian meeting, Anderson said. “I am more concerned about my experiences among Presbyterians. As someone who is not a part of that 91 percent majority … being brown in the PC(USA) is hard,” she said, citing the words of former moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow.
“I expect that much of the injury I will be experiencing will be within that convention center,” Anderson said.
Robina Winbush, the PC(USA)’s associate for ecumenical relations, highlighted two gatherings held in St. Louis-area churches shortly after Brown’s killing. One, at a Baptist church, was to support Brown’s family. Another, to pray for Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot Brown, was held at Southminster Presbyterian Church.
“I don’t know if they have ever been called to account for that,” Winbush said of the Presbyterian gathering.
“They were not,” Nelson responded.
He also said the Hands and Feet initiative in St. Louis will to some extent be a learning experience – involving some trial and error about the best way to connect with local initiatives and justice movements. “We will be able to jumpstart Baltimore immediately” after the St. Louis assembly, Nelson said. “Baltimore I think will be a step up from where we are here, and we will grow this thing significantly.”